Few games mimic the intricacies of a given conflict as well as Volko Ruhnke’s Wilderness War (2001). The designer uses several simple mechanics to good effect, elegantly showing the frustration players’ historical counterparts experienced in the French and Indian War.
Rivers as Highways: In early colonial America, thick forests and difficult mountain ranges necessitated the use of waterways as roads. Ruhnke emphasizes this by stating that units may move up to nine spaces via rivers, as opposed to the usual four by land. He even incorporates portages, allowing troops to move between rivers. Players quickly find themselves constructing fortifications at the confluence of two or more rivers to control these liquid highways.
A New Form of Warfare: The geographical and political circumstances of the French and Indian War ushered in a new era of warfare that confounded commanders who were stuck in their European ways. Wilderness War utilizes two types of troops, “drilled” and “auxiliary.” Drilled units need to construct fortifications to stay in supply, and suffer penalties when fighting in the wilderness without friendly auxiliaries–light, non-traditional fighters, including Indians, rangers, and French fur trappers.
Dilatory Generals: In this conflict, the British were plagued early on with slow-witted commanders who were unable to adapt to the new modes of warfare mentioned above. This is clearly mirrored in the game, as each general is assigned an activation rating. A higher rating requires players to play a high value card to activate him and his force. I’ve often sat staring at the board, gnashing my teeth as General Loudon and Abercrombie sit snug in their forts, afraid to march into the wild and take the fight to the enemy. No doubt British Primer Minister William Pitt felt the same when reading dispatches from the colonies.
Shifting Alliances and Unpredictable Events: Ruhnke also does an excellent job mixing on map realities with events on cards. For example, both sides’ Indian allies desired easy access to European goods. Thus, if I want an Iroquois Alliance (card #28), I’d better have my troops build a stockade/trading post near their villages! Likewise, if I want to Ambush (cards #11-12) my opponent, I need to have a greater number of auxiliaries than he does. Players find themselves working to maintain control of certain on-map elements to they can access card events later on in the game.
War is Hell: As I stated earlier, the French and Indian War was truly a new kind of conflict, which surprised its European participants with its unpredictability and brutality. This is also reflected in the design. Cards such as Ambush, Massacre, and Coehorns & Howitzers are powerful but rare. When they are used against me, I am surprised, but I never feel “robbed.” Likewise, leader loss is pretty high compared to most other war games, but again, this is in keeping with the historical realities of the war.
In short, these few elegant design choices serve to immerse players in the conflict in a way few other games do. When I’m playing Wilderness War, I don’t feel like a board game player, but a general, tired, bruised, and dirty, urging my motley forces through the forest to victory.