Sunday, December 30, 2012

Scourge of War Chancellorsville - Review

Scourge of War Chancellorsville
Developed by NorbSoftDev
Published by Matrix/Slitherine Games
29.99 US Dollars (Download)
39.99 US Dollars (Download and CD)


The Battle of Chancellorsville (May 1–5, 1863) was a Union's Army of the Potomac attack on the Confederate's Army of Northern Virginia. Unusual for an Army commanded by the offensive-driven character of Confederate General Lee, the opening moves of the battle find the rebels in the defensive along the Rappahannock River. The supply situation was not good for either side. The Union Army of the Potomac was now under the orders of the no less aggressive General Hooker, who devised a plan for a single envelopment aimed at cutting off the supply and retreat routes of the Confederates. General Hooker's relative success during the opening moves was wasted when he retreated towards the village of Chancellorsville and assumed a defensive posture. It was all for grabs from there for the Confederates. Not unlike a mini/tactical version of the operations of Frederick the Great or Napoleon during his last campaign, General Lee managed to split his army and fight simultaneously the Union fixing forces at the Rappahannock and the Union main maneuver force on his left flank. Furthermore, if one looks closely the march of Confederate General Jackson's Corps against the Union flank has nothing to envy at Frederick's march at Leuthen. A battle of maneuvers and counter-maneuvers is always a great war gaming topic.

Scourge of War Chancellorsville is both an expansion (if you already own Scourge of War Gettysburg) and a standalone 3D (grand) tactical war game where the player assumes the role of a brigade, division or corps commander. The scope is entirely at the level of the tactical/grand-tactical decision making of both sides during the Battle of Chancellorsville. The virtual battlefield is entirely 3D and seemingly a good representation of the real one. Units are regiments (infantry and cavalry), batteries (artillery) and supply trains. The representation of time is continuous and although the game engine can be paused, it is not possible to issue orders while the virtual clock is not ticking. There is also the possibility to accelerate the pace of the game engine, very useful for some extended movement-to-contact periods. Regiments and batteries are grouped in historical orders of battle not only in name but also within a hierarchical artificial intelligence system that assists the player in commanding the many subordinate units at his disposal.  The designer's aim for the Scourge of War series is the comprehensive and realistic representation of American Civil War battlefields at the (grand) tactical level. The Chancellorsville war game is an arrangement of well-chosen, hand-picked actions mostly at the corps level and below.

The Scourge of War Engine

Scourge of War Chancellorsville goes to great pains to simulate terrain, movement, troops morale, ordnance exchange and its effects. Keeping in mind the limitations of today computers and the axiom that there is no substitute for the real thing, there are barely any obtrusive abstractions where I can point my finger at the designer. One of these abstractions is infantry regiments deploying in line formation and clipping into each other, making too frequent and too fast facing changes when brigades engage in narrow spaces. It looks like the position of a regiment is computed as a single point (instead of a line) for some artificial intelligence routines. The same applies to regiments in line formation not "snapping" completely into a linear cover like a fence or stonewall. But that's pretty much it. It barely suspends disbelief when the player has bigger fish to fry (like the frequent happening of an entire enemy Corps looming in the player's flank).

As if the treat of an immersive 3D battlefield with the full spectacle of war right before the player's eyes was not enough, the Scourge of War engine also includes a command and control simulation in which you can literally compose your orders and get them delivered by couriers to the subordinate unit. This results in orders delays that depend on the distance from your tactical command post and your subordinate and also in careful thinking about how your orders will be executed by the subordinate commander. These subordinate commanders, mostly controlled by the computer (unless you choose differently in the difficulty settings), have different command styles that will affect how fast and how well they will accomplish their mission. Fear not, the depth of this hardcore command feature is fully scalable and you can play at any level of complexity, from "select any unit, click on destination" to the more complex command mode explained above. Furthermore, the game engine is so well designed that at any level of complexity the gaming experience is both fulfilling and engrossing.

A reservation that frequently arises from war gaming enthusiasts that feel more at ease with turn based games is that computer gaming engines with continuous time lead to a so-called "clickfests". In the case of the Scourge of War series, the amount of clicks needed to win an scenario is low if you are a good tactician. Off course, if you are compelled to micromanage every regiment in your corps, your mouse hand will suffer. But I would say that even with a moderately high degree of micromanagement, the only "strain" I had was in my head ... Figuring out a good tactical plan, executing it, adapting it and maintaining it. This is a war game about tactics and command, and if you go into it with a "RTS" mentality, your forces and your mouse hand will be crushed.

Chancellorsville can be played solo against a the computer or multiplayer against a human opponent. The computer opponent in the game is very capable and fond of ruining your most clever plans. It maneuvers towards your flanks with intimidating tenacity, it uses combined arms whenever the resources are available and most importantly, it appears to have a hierarchical tactical plan against you. Some moves of the computer opponent are scripted in the single player scenarios and these are intended to preserve the historical feeling of the scenario. But after those moves are executed, the computer opponent is fully unleashed to dynamically react against the player's actions. It is in those conditions where the player can see, for example, an enemy division suddenly forced into an area defense allocating different sectors to each brigade. The multiplayer sessions can be either through a lobby system or by direct IP connection with the opponent's computer. Unfortunately, due to time constrains, I could not explore the multiplayer aspects of the game.

The Scourge of War series it's a bold, off-the-beaten-path design with ambitious goals, all of them achieved. The fact that the United States Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC) had chosen Scourge of War for teaching command and control in the Missions Command class speaks volumes of the quality of this game.


Chancellorsville includes 4 tutorial scenarios (infantry, artillery, brigade and division command) and 20 scenarios starting at different places and times during the battle. The majority of these scenarios are playable from one side only. Most of them are at the division level (11 total), followed by the ones at the corps level (5 total) and a few more at the brigade level (3 total). There is one scenario where the player commands the whole Army of Northern Virginia. I wished for more scenarios at the army level, but alas the real battle sprawled over so much terrain that porting the entire battlefield into the computer would have been likely too demanding on hardware.

The pace of the gameplay, even when there are no turns and time is continuous, allows the player ample time to make decisions. What type of decisions (i.e. at which level of command) are the player's choice. I usually actively command all my subordinate formations (if I am a Corps commander I give orders to all my divisions) and around 1/3 of subordinate units two levels below (brigades). The latter are orders for formations located where something decisive is happening (point of main effort, commitment of reserves).

Chancellorsville scenarios play like an interactive lesson in history. At the start of the scenario, the player experiences exactly the type of decision-making process the real commanders had. Should I commit this Corps at that hill? Will that extensive flanking march I am planning take way too long to actually have an effect? How much of my cavalry should I detach for security? As the scenario progresses, the player gets the full blown reality of (grand) tactical combat during the American Civil War: its indecisiveness. A byproduct of what and to which extent each is an academic issue. But let’s say that less than optimal command and control, poor use of combined arms and not enough reserves to exploit success , do not help for a decisive victory. The Scourge of War series offers you a chance to both experience the shortcomings mentioned above and to try to make a difference.

Another interesting aspect of the Scourge of War series is that single player scenarios include neighboring friendly units not under the player's command. For the player, this means he has to keep a good eye for supporting and providing support to whoever friendly formation is in his flanks. Many times I had to postpone taking my objective, just waiting for that General to bring his troops up to the line of battle.

Overall Evaluation

I have been always mesmerized by movie scenes or literature paragraphs depicting generals looking at the distance with their binoculars, just to all of the sudden come out with something like "the enemy's main attack is not in front of us". How much tactical acumen does it take to grasp a battlefield from the tactical command post? I don't know the answer to that, but I can assure you that your appreciation for battlefield leadership will change after doing so, tethered to your virtual horse mount in Chancellorsville at the hardest difficulty levels.

Score: A. One of the finest computer war games ever published. Looks great, plays great and one of the few war games that succeeded to tackle command and control in a playable and scalable manner. Makes you wish the design talent used for this war game could be extended to other wars and warfare periods.

Additional Screenshots


Anonymous said...

A darn fine addition to an excellant series.
Commit your reserves and purchase this as soon as you deem practicable.

Anonymous said...

nice review, looks interesting

thank you !


Anonymous said...

Hi, JC!

Tell me, where is the column for "most recent comments"? It was to the right of the screen in your blog. A very useful (and, sadly, vanished) feature.


JC said...

Hi Michael,

I miss it too! The applet went bad last year and I can't plug it in again.


Anonymous said...

et voila,
bought it, downloading now

thx to your review :-)

rgds, Koen

JC said...

Thanks, Koen. I'm sure you will enjoy this fine game.