Civil War: 1863 ($1.99) is Scottish studio Hunted Cow’s sophomore release, following their WWII game Tank Battle: 1944 ($1.99). Both games are, as you may have guessed by now, historical war games. They’re also turn-based strategy titles that carve out a middle-ground between the hardcore wargames of yore and the Advance Wars-esque styling of most iOS TBS releases.
As with OffWorld Games’ Legion of the Damned ($1.99) battles are set-piece, and more than that, the battles in Civil War: 1863 are modeled on historical engagements. History buffs should be pleased: it’s not Sid Meyer’s Gettysburg, but units are named correctly and enter battle at an approximation of their strength, equipment, and experience.
Getting the feel right without going into excessive detail is where Civil War: 1863 shines: the battles feel nothing like the cartooned combined-arms tactics that Great Big War Game ($2.99) excels at (and other iOS games often muddle along with). Artillery functions similarly enough to what you might expect, but infantry are the backbone of your army, and your cavalry are in no way a replacement for tanks, functioning more as scouts and skirmishers.
The inaccuracy of period firearms contributes to two key game elements: firstly, your battles will mostly be battles of attrition, not single attacks that destroy entire formations. Secondly, understanding and utilizing formation commands is crucial to victory. Infantry can be formed into a line, maximizing their firepower and reducing their vulnerability to enemy fire, or a column, doubling their movement and maximizing their ability to perform bayonet charges. Rough terrain breaks formations, so while infantry moving through woods are harder to hit, their “unformed" ranks can’t return fire efficiently.
Moving into rough terrain or over fences and walls also prevents a unit from firing after it moves, leaving them doubly vulnerable, and units cannot change formation and fire in the same turn. This makes planning pincer movements and successfully executing retreats more challenging, but also more rewarding (as the same limitations apply to the other player). Cavalry present a similar choice, as they have the best movement in the game mounted, but can only charge when mounted, and charging a fortified position is almost always disastrous. Cavalry can unmount to act as 2nd-rate infantry, and using them this way is essential to using them effectively. This also reflects the realities of the time: the age of the cavalry charge was over.
There isn’t a lot of diversity to your units, but it’s enough to allow for a range of strategies: they can be veterans, somewhat-experienced, or green recruits, and are equipped either with rifled muskets or the inferior smoothbore musket.
The game is well-drawn, units animated, the maps balance realism with clarity, and the music and sound effects are appropriate, if not all that memorable. The game isn’t terribly large, consisting of an 8-mission tutorial and an 8-mission campaign. Unlike the forthcoming Civil War – The battle game from The Bitstreamers, which promises three hours of gameplay for the battle of Fredericksburg alone, Civil War: 1863 battle maps are kept to a small to medium size. There are two additional campaigns of 8 missions each available through IAP, one covering Gettysburg and the other a series of Confederate missions.
Wait, what? …well, while the game has a nice range of two-player maps, the tutorial and default campaign are Union-only. Here’s where Hunted Cow, as a Scottish studio, may have miscalculated their American audience. I’ll play Union or Confederacy with equal zest – this is a game, folks – but a lot of Civil War gamers prefer to play as Johnny Reb, either out of Southern Pride or preference for the smaller numbers of seasoned and expertly-led troops available to the South. If you think about it, most games presume a single heroic avatar or a small number of elite units fighting off enemy hordes. Regardless of why, it’s clear from the game’s iTunes reviews that some players are really put out that you have to spend an extra buck for the “Rebel Yell" campaign.
There is one serious flaw with Civil War: it saves Game Center and offline campaign progress separately. If you find yourself without internet access, your campaign progress is inaccessible and you have to start over. It’s true the other-way round as well: offline progress is hidden and unusable whenever you’re logged in to Game Center. Making matters worse, there’s no in-game way to switch between the two: if you want to play your offline progress when you have signal, you have to put your device in airplane mode.
A smaller design flaw adds insult to this injury: the “Resume Game" button is only for returning to an unfinished battle. The rest of the time, it’s greyed out. To fight the next battle in a campaign you were working on, you have to choose “New Game." This, combined with the separately saved on-line and off-line progress initially led me to believe that the game wasn’t saving my progress at all – which would have been a terminal failure.
I trust that Hunted Cow will fix the separate-save problem and clarify the menu. It’s a barrier to entry in an otherwise very accessible game. As it is, the game is perfectly playable once you know what’s going on, but a lot of players are going to give up before they puzzle it out. (There’s an idea – a puzzle game where all of the puzzles are disguised as problems with the app… hold on, I have to go create a Kickstarter for that.)
If you can deal with the saved-progress issue, and you don’t mind wearing the blue, Civil War 1863 is a quick playing little strategy game that gets the feel of its setting right, and in doing so, plays differently from the competition. It’s something that grognards, history buffs, and casual strategy gamers alike should be able to get into, and that’s quite an accomplishment.