Daring amphibious assaults, bitter city sieges, near-run coastal evacuations, major offensives cut short by poor winter planning, massive armies made up of multi-national forces fighting side-by-side, and…George Washington?
Compass Games‘ End of Empire: 1744-1782, a grand-operational level wargame covering the various British conflicts in North America, takes gamers beyond the traditional understanding of these wars. Far from a series of skirmishes and set-piece battles, the fight for North America was as much one of maneuver as manpower, of politics as powder, and William M. Marsh manages to bring it all home in an accessible, engaging, and well-mannered monster game.
Dedicated readers of this site will note that I have previously reviewed End of Empire, but with my recent ability to get larger games on my table, combined with a very solitaire-friendly game mechanic, I thought it a fine choice to revisit for the next review in the Table for One project.
End of Empire: 1744-1782
Compass Games, 2014
Designed by William M. Marsh
End of Empire originally saw life as a magazine game in Command Issue 46 back in 1997. The Compass Games edition some seventeen years later builds on the original’s solid bones, coming boxed with four and a half countersheets (5/8″ counters), two standard-sized maps (running lengthwise, for 68″ x 22″ total dimensions), two black-and-white printed rules booklets, a few glossy charts, and a nondescript d6.
Of note, other than informational markers, each of the three main conflicts depicted—King George’s War, the French and Indian War, and the American Revolutionary War— has a separate counter set, with the ARW getting the lion’s share of the counters. There’s a lot of game here, fifteen scenarios in all, though many just provide a shorter version of the main three conflicts by moving the starting date back a year or so or tweaking some variables.
The counters themselves pack in a lot of information, all efficiently presented in the style one has come to expect from Brien J. Miller. The counter color scheme, though, leaves much to be desired. Crucial gameplay elements hinge on differentiating between British regular (burgundy) and provincial (russet brown) units. American forces suffer the same closeness between Continental Army (“darker” blue) and State (“medium” blue) units, with a similar need during play to tell them apart.
To make matters worse, the German mercenaries have three schemes that are close to each other and the Americans as well (navy blue, medium blue, medium green). Even in good light, these counter colors are not readily discernible at a glance, and some variations in printing lead to moments of second-guessing. I understand the desire to theme the units via color; context clues, plus some printed notes, make most of the units’ affiliations decipherable, but some other mnemonic needed to be employed, just for ease of use.
It’s worth mentioning that when counter errata surfaced for End of Empire, Compass sent out replacements unasked to people who had purchased directly, a nice touch. Even people who bought via retail, such as myself, were able to acquire them with a simple e-mail. I find that Compass has tended over the years to push games out when a final round of proofing or a keener eye during collation might catch a few more mistakes. I’ve done a fair bit of game playtesting and proofing myself, so I know it’s easier said than done. Regardless, I cannot fault Compass’ customer service one bit, and as a wargamer, I’m quite glad they appeared on the scene back in 2005 with Silent War.
The game shines brightest in its order of battle research. Units come mostly as regiments, plus a scattering of brigades and ad hoc forces, and, especially on the American side, these forces undergo significant alterations as the war grinds on. Many units are substituted for others, or brought into play when special circumstances trigger their appearance. In practice, the unit swaps (showing re-armament with muskets, say) and withdrawals prove to be a bit fiddly, particularly with the large stacks that the game’s initiative and command control rules encourage, but they are fascinating little history lessons all the same.
End of Empire sits in an interesting scale niche, with two month turns, twenty mile hexes spread over two maps, and regimental sized units. Other games attempting to portray these wars in their entirety use armies as the units in play, thousands of troops per counter rather than hundreds. One definition of a “monster” game is a game with units seemingly too small for the scale in play, and this game qualifies. It’s a big country, and there aren’t a lot of units with which to control it—a nice bit of history via design that comes through clearly. You’re not going to find front lines here. Mobility reigns supreme, and the command control rules can penalize over-commitment of forces when a key stack simply fails to activate.
The maps display the extent of colonial infrastructure via “civilized” hexes, a neat way of showing not just the spread of roads and other logistical features but also revealing the friction felt by British forces amongst an unfriendly populace: British forces pay twice the movement cost in American civilized spaces and cannot trace supply through them without a unit garrisoned there. American forces, then, have a significant speed advantage in the thirteen colonies, with the ability to react much more quickly to British moves than the reverse, as well as enjoying a simpler supply picture via interior lines.
Wilderness hexes dominate the majority of the map, such that one wonders why so much of “non-civilized” North America is portrayed. Certainly, from a sandbox perspective, it’s good to have the ability to fight from New Orleans to Nova Scotia, but in general play, it’s a lot of wasted space. Even with the slightly odd terrain conformations used for the map, though, I’m not sure how else you could get the Atlantic seaboard on a single map at this scale, and if nothing else, the wide open expanses give you a place to put your dice tower.
Combat, both linear/European-style and ambush, takes place in-hex. There are no zones of control, and entering an enemy hex is only prohibited if the attacker lacks sufficient movement points to initiate combat, which takes place during the move. Said combat will always result in the hex being occupied by one side, except for cases where a force occupies the “sub-location” of a town or fortress within the hex. The rules are somewhat loose in terms of this sub-location and its interactions with called-off combats, but in practice it doesn’t come up that frequently.
Operations in the forests brings into play the ambush mechanic, allowing Native American forces that have allied with one side or another, plus some specially trained units, to engage in decidedly non-sporting, non-linear warfare. Only the defender takes losses in ambush combats, forcing players to respect even small units in their path if the opponent has offensive ambush capability.
When European and Colonial forces square up, a more traditional odds-based system with losses for both attacker and defender is used. The linear combat results table isn’t very bloody; design notes indicate that casualties were relatively small no matter how many units faced off. And often, there are a lot of units in the fight. In the opening battles for Boston in the American Revolutionary War campaign, for instance, combat between a dozen regiments or more on each side are quite feasible.
These “death star” stacks come about because of the need for leaders to efficiently move units. The initiative and command control rules drive play in End of Empire. Put simply, no move is guaranteed until the die has had its say.
Leaders all have ratings for initiative, but even the best (e.g., Washington and Carleton at a rating of five) have a one in six chance of failing the roll, where failure means the end of movement for the stack they were trying to motivate. Units attempting to move on their own, other than an elite few with automatic movement, must roll against a default rating of two. Quite a few plans fall by the wayside because of this game mechanic. Woe betide a commander who leaves a force stranded out of supply during the attritional winter months.
Naval combat, once the French and Spanish fleets appear to trouble the British, comes in as a simple affair (high roll on a d6, no mods), but the outcomes are anything but simple. Each naval power has one fleet only, to be placed in one of six sea zones, and being denied its use for a turn—the only negative outcome of naval combat—can have significant repercussions. The British rely on control of the sea for supply and to move forces around at will, forcing difficult decisions. Try to remove the French fleet which blocks overseas supply for British forces in the coastal areas of a sea zone, or blockade an American port, to prevent them from conducting their own amphibious invasions? Quite a bit hinges on an ostensibly simple choice, an elegant design outcome from such a short set of rules.
Solo Play Suitability
Playing wargames solitaire requires combatting omniscience in some way or other. In End of Empire, both sides can have very clear plans—and very clear means of opposing the opponent’s plans—fall to the wayside via a single failed Initiative roll. Clinton never leaves New York to besiege Charleston, Washington doesn’t cross the Delaware, and then what?
The die can be fickle, stopping a strong stack in its tracks better than any enemy force. In practice, the Initiative system acts as a randomizer, guiding play of both sides beyond the player’s control. The uncertainty injected by the Initiative system makes End of Empire a worthy game for the solo player.
Player interactivity is limited to the reaction mechanic, whereby units (aided by any leaders stacked with them) may attempt to flee from an enemy that moves adjacent or to reinforce a combat when an enemy advances into a hex containing friendly units. This ability, too, is contingent on the Initiative system, and in most cases, it’s obvious what an opposing stack will try (and often fail) to do. That small stack of British regulars isn’t going to stand and fight fifteen regiments led by Washington if it can help it.
Too, particularly in the American Revolutionary War campaign, both sides have so many areas to focus on and not nearly sufficient troops, or turns, or leaders, to conduct it all. For the British to win, not only must they protect their regular troops but they must also either take (and hold) all the American supply spaces or raid enough ports to force the economy to collapse. The Americans have amazing troop resilience—many of their forces are reconstituted yearly—but must hold several key locations to bring those troops back year after year. Holding coastal spaces when the British can swoop in with a massive army is not for the faint of heart. The tensions both sides face between garrisoning vital locations and forcing matters with troop concentrations make for a compelling puzzle, spiced up by those failed Initiative rolls.
Indeed, in playing the American Revolutionary War campaign, one pays attention to the calendar and the reinforcement schedule much more than one would in an ordinary wargame. Units, for historical reasons, withdraw no matter the tactical situation; militia disappears on an agricultural schedule, paying no heed to how much effort you spent to get them, with their often low movement factor, into the fight. And if you pay attention to where units will be arriving, you can, if your own force situation and die rolls allow, get there first and compel a fight.
The shorter scenarios suffer from the very mechanic that makes the longer scenarios and campaign work a treat for the solo player. The Initiative die roll evens out over twenty or more turns; in a five turn scenario of limited scope, it’s not unthinkable, though exceedingly unlucky, to not get to move a single unit. For that reason, I only recommend End of Empire for solo play in the longer campaign scenarios. Besides, if you’ve gone to the trouble of setting up the table for a monster game, why not play a monster game?
Final Die Roll
It’s here I must confess that I’m not very much a student of the battles of the Age of Reason. My wargaming corpus effectively starts with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and goes from there. Certainly I know the greatest hits of the era, the Shot Heard ‘Round the World and all that. I wrote a grade school paper on George Rogers Clark, and I’ve even seen the Liberty Bell a few times, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge.
Designer’s notes throughout the rules note how various game features help replicate historical battles—for instance, the ability for the Massachusetts militia to appear if the British leave Boston yields the battles of Lexington and Concord. But the further off the historical path gamers go, particularly those of us without a background voice reminding us what Putnam and Gage and Washington and Cornwallis really did, the more the unit replacements and arrivals, all predicated on the historical events unfolding according to plan, feel at odds with the situation on the map. It’s not an issue unique to End of Empire—all wargames with detailed orders of battle with historical arrival/reinforcement dates suffer from this conundrum. Let a wargamer loose on a map and he/she will make a mess of history, no question.
In the final analysis, the conflicts depicted in End of Empire seem accurately modeled, or at least close enough to help a gamer better understand the situations presented, and that’s the point of these simulation games. In these battles, large armies take forever to gather and can disappear much more quickly; political and economic considerations loom large in both sides’ risk analysis; wilderness warfare remains best left to the skilled; and militias have a nasty habit of showing up to ruin the professionals’ day. More than anything, weather and logistics, lightly modeled here, have an overwhelming effect on campaign pace and momentum all out of proportion to their rules overhead.
Tabletop commanders in End of Empire feel, keenly, that they are moving forces made up of humans, not machines, on a battlefield still consumed with the everyday demands of civilian life, a rare accomplishment in a hobby whose rule systems tend towards the cold and mechanistic.