Wilderness War

A game by Volko Ruhnke, published 2001 by GMT
These comments copyright 2002 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated February 14, 2002


Wilderness War is a card-driven wargame, another variation on the type of game pioneered by We the People and containing such excellent games as Hannibal. There are quite a few games of this nature by now, but at the time of writing this review, Wilderness War is my favorite.

By "card-driven wargame" I mean a fairly typical wargame, with a map of an area, cardboard counters representing various units, a combat results table, etc. - with the addition of cards. Players begin each turn with a number of cards and alternate playing one card at a time which allows them to do various things. The advantage of such games over the older style of wargame (in which you simply moved all your units every turn) is that it adds a whole dimension of decisions, making the game much more interesting. In addition, such games can be relatively simple and yet attain some depth, a very attractive combination.

Wilderness War is about the French & Indian war that raged in North America 1755-1763. Britain and France fought over control of a continent, both having Indian allies. It was a strange and dirty war - the French frankly used terrorist tactics, encouraging Indian raids on British communities. The British were equally brutal in their ousting of French settlers in Acadia and in their genocidal tactics against the Indians (Lord Amherst giving Indians blankets from a smallpox infirmary, for example). The war was important in U.S. history in that it set the stage for the American War of Independence. (It's also the source of the quotation from Ben Franklin, so relevant today: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.") Many novels and movies have been set in this war, such as Northwest Passage and Last of the Mohicans - it's a rich period in our history.

The game includes:

  • A full color map, covering from Quebec to Virginia, Maine to Ohio;
  • Over 250 pieces, including stand-up generals;
  • 70 Strategy Cards (single deck - players don't have their own decks);
  • Rulebook, playbook including example of play, player-aid sheets, dice.
You can see pictures of a portion of the map and some of the counters at the publisher's link, above, and on boardgamegeek.com. There are two basic types of spaces on the map, cultivated and wilderness. You can make the wilderness more accessible by sending troops there to build forts or stockades.

Four different scenarios are provided with the game, including a fine ~two-hour scenario suitable for tournaments. You can play:

  • the early war (1755-1759),
  • the tournament scenario (1757-1759),
  • the late war (1757-1763), or
  • the full campaign (1755-1763).
Two different set-ups are provided, one for those games starting in 1755, and one for those starting in 1757. My favorite is the early war scenario: it's about a 4-5 hour game, which feels right to me for a wargame, and is very exciting. The full campaign is a bit too long for my tastes, and I don't care to play the final years of the war that much, which feel like the British juggernaut rolling over the dwindling French. Not my cup of tea. The tournament scenario is excellent, though, and I'll happily play that when time is an issue.

Although I have little personal experience with the scenarios that go until 1763, I'd be worried a bit about game balance. The two scenarios that end in 1759 are remarkably well-balanced games, with the British and French winning roughly equally in our games. Sometimes it comes down to the last die roll! I suspect the British may have an edge in the scenarios that go until 1763, but I admit I could be wrong as I haven't played them much.
Each scenario has separate victory conditions, clearly spelled out. They're basically the same, but require different levels on the VP track.

To begin the game, choose a scenario, set-up the starting pieces as directed in the playbook, deal each player seven cards (or different number as specified by the scenario), and you're ready to go.

The Basic Course of Play

The French player has the first turn and must choose a card to play, and say how the card is being used (see the next section). If used to activate troops, he then moves those troops. If they enter a space containing an enemy force or fortification, he attacks. Once this is resolved, his opponent plays a card and resolves all actions pertaining to the card play. Players repeat this until one has only one card left. At that point, he may play his last card or he may pass, carrying his last card forward to the next turn. His opponent does the same, and when both have passed (or are out of cards), the turn is over.

Once a turn is over, advance the turn marker. There are two turns per years: an Early Season turn and a Late Season turn. If an Early Season turn finished, simply deal out enough cards to bring each player back to their alloted hand (usually seven), and begin the Late Season turn.

When the Late Season turn ends, however, there are some additional phases before going on to the next year. Winter is coming on, and this is New England and New France: it can be tough. So all Indians not inside a fortification go to their tribal homes, and unaccompaniend leaders go to a friendly fortification. Any Raid markers accumulated during the year are removed, scoring victory points for the appropriate side. Units outside the fortification winter attrition level are reduced. And finally, check to see if either side has enough VP to end the game early. If not, then advance the turn marker and begin the next year.

That's the general outline. The objectives for the British are to capture key French fortifications: Louisbourg (off-map, handled by a few holding boxes), Quebec, Montreal, Niagra, and Ohio Forks (site of Fort Duquesne, now Pittsburgh). The French are basically trying to avoid the British victory conditions, but they can also win through accumulating enough victory points during the game to force the British to concede their right to be in North America. They can achieve a tie by besieging a major British city (such as Boston or New York), even if they lose most of their own fortresses.

Victory points are awarded throughout the game. There is a single VP track: every time the British gain a VP, the French essentially lose one. You can gain Victory points for various activities:

  • Defeating "regulars" in combat
  • Capturing or destroying enemy fortifications
  • Raiding enemy settlements
  • Capturing key strategic points.
If one side ever has 10+ VP at the end of a year, the game is over early - instant victory.

The Cards and Leaders

Ah, the cards! The cards, of course, are the heart of a card-driven wargame, and these are done exceptionally well. Each card can be used in one of two or three ways when you play it:

  • As an event, listed and clearly spelled out on each card,
  • As an activation card, allowing you to activate one or more leaders and/or their troops,
  • As a construction card, allowing you to build stockades or forts.
Each card has a number from 1-3 in a circle. The circle is colored either blue (French event), or red (British event), or half blue, half red (either side may use the event). Regardless of the color of the circle, anyone can use the number in the circle: either as an activation number or construction number.

An activation number allows you to activate a leader with that rating or lower. So a "1" card can activate a "1" leader only, such as Wolfe or Montcalm. A "2" card can activate Wolfe or Montcalm, but also generals who had less initiative, historically, than either of those brilliant generals: Braddock or Drucour or Shirley. Finally, a "3" card can activate any general on your side, even such historically cautious types as Vaudreuil or Abercromby.

Each leader can control a number of units listed on his piece, anywhere from 2-7. This number also represents his rank: you can't have a "5" general lead your troops if there's a "7" general in the same space, even if the latter is an incompetent buffoon. Finally, each leader has a tactics rating from 0 to 2, the higher the better. This number is added to the die roll in combat (and in attempts to avoid combat), so Wolfe and Montcalm, the only "2s," are very valuable to their own sides. I find it interesting that historically they were both mortally wounded in the same battle - the battle that decided the fate of New France.

So you can activate an individual leader with a card, allowing him to move the troops he commands. He can command other leaders, by the way, allowing you, for example, to move a "4" leader with his four units and the "2" leader he commands, and his two units. Or you can activate individual units with a card, and not bother the leaders.

Using a card to construct forts or stockades is simple: you may construct as many stockades (or fort steps) as the number on the card. There are three levels of fortifications: Fortresses (printed on the map), forts (take two steps to build) and stockades (one step to build). Fortresses and forts must be besieged to be taken, while stockades simply give the defender a bonus in combat and against raiding.

However, this game shines in its events. Every card lists an event, mostly historical. Some cards are removed from the game if played as events, others come back when the deck is reshuffled. Events range from major (such as the battle of Quiberon Bay off France, in which the British defeated the French fleet, cutting off aid to New France) to moderate (such as the Northern Indian Alliance joins the French against the British) to minor (such as stingy provincial assemblies requiring the British to remove one provincial troop). Some of the events in the game are:

  • Reinforcements from Europe (regular troops)
  • Raising local troops and militia
  • Amphibious Landing, allowing the British to move against Louisbourg and then Quebec by sea
  • Colonial Politics, affecting British provincial troop levels up or down
  • Ambush, giving a bonus to combat in the wilderness
  • Campaign, allowing you to activate two generals in the same round
  • Small Pox, which hurts large troop concentrations - especially Indians
  • Various events which give you a bonus in combat or sieges (these can be played out of turn)
  • Courier Intercepted and François Bigot which allow you to take cards from your opponent's hand
  • And many more
So there are many interesting choices to make every turn! Which card do I play, in which order? Which card do I play as the event, and which do I play as an activation card? If I do activate a leader, which front do I focus on: Louisbourg/Quebec, or the Champlain/Hudson corridor, or the Ohio Forks region in the west? Do I raid or go for regular combat or sieges? And so on - a very fine game in this respect: there's lots to do and not enough resources and time to do it all, so where do you focus? This enjoyable aspect of the game would be greatly reduced in a wargame in which you can move all your units each turn.

Advanced Rules and Troop Types

The game is largely straightforward and relatively simple, as wargames go. Not as simple as We the People, but much simpler and more playable than, say, Paths of Glory. To me, this is good. At my advanced age, I can't play the long, complex wargames I could in my youth. I like 'em simple, and Wilderness War is, for the most part, within the range I like.

There are some optional advanced rules. Even these aren't too complex, though, and I recommend you play with at least Avoiding Battle and the Supply rules. They make the game much better and more realistic. Don't be put off by the word "supply" - the supply rules are very simple as supply rules go, and it's not disastrous if you lose supply. You simply can't replenish lost steps in any out-of-supply troops, they can't construct fortifications, and they can't besiege a fort or fortress. These are all good rules and necessary to prevent gamey abuse of the system, such as a lone French unit besieging Philadelphia causing a tie ...

However, the number of troop types might give you some pause. There are seven different troop types, all with their own rules! This is a bit extreme, and can make for some confusion, I admit. In fact, I had to make an expanded player aid sheet listing all the differences in troop types in order to understand them. Once I did that, though, I found it became clear and fairly easy to remember.

There are three basic types of troops: drilled troops (based on the European model), auxiliaries (who fought more like Native Americans than like Europeans), and militia (the National Guard of their day).

Militia are kept in separate holding boxes and only come into play during battles or raids on stockades in their local regions, after which they go back in the holding box.

Drilled troops come in three types:

  • Regulars (British and French units from Europe)
  • Provincials (British troops raised in North America based on the Regular model, but not as good)
  • Light Infantry (British troops trained to fight in wilderness).
Drilled troops can capture or build fortifications. They tend to be better in normal combat than auxiliaries are. Regulars get a bonus fighting in cultivated areas, but you lose a victory point if they are defeated in battle. And so on - differences are spelled out completely in the aid sheet listed above.

Auxiliaries come in three types, also:

  • Indians
  • French Coureurs des Bois (woodsmen, voyageurs, etc. - many of whom were part Indian and/or had Indian wives)
  • British Rangers (such as the famous Rogers' Rangers)
Auxiliaries can raid settlements, can move easily through wilderness, are easier to activate individually, but are restricted in their abilities to besiege and operate in cultivated areas.

So although I am now comfortable with the differences between the seven types of troops, be warned that it took me a while to get them all straight. This is really the only complicated part of the game, however, and you shouldn't let it put you off.

Why Wouldn't You Like This Game?

Well, it's a wargame - you might not like them.

Conversely, if you are a wargamer, it may be simpler than you like - many wargamers like monster games with very precisely detailed rules, and this doesn't fit that description at all.

The seven troop types might seem like unnecessary complications to you.

You might have no interest in this time period or geographic setting. Me, I love it. Not only as a period of history I've long had an interest in, but also because I had ancestors in both Nouveau France and New England at that time who must have been profoundly affected by the war. (And you can see where I live, called White Mountains Central on the map!)

Summing Up

Well written and organized rules: very clean and straightforward for the most part. As in almost every game, of course, there are errata, none of it very serious, though. You can find a current list of them here: latest Wilderness War errata file.

This is an exciting development in the card-driven wargame series, and frankly the one that I find most playable, enjoyable and accessible. Highly recommended if you have any interest in a moderately complex wargame on this period.

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