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‘We the People’ a Revolutionary Board Game about the American Revolution

by Michael Barnes (07/03/12).

We the People was produced in a large format box, unlike the usual “bookshelf” style associated with Avalon Hill.

Even with all this talk of bombs bursting in the air in our National Anthem, it’s easy to forget amid the cookout hamburgers and cheap Chinese fireworks at any Fourth of July event that the young American nation’s road to independence from Great Britain was a hard-won revolutionary war fought right here on American soil. Although Independence Day commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress, the abstract and generalized patriotism that the holiday tends to inspire doesn’t really speak to the fact that this defining document was drafted and ratified at a time when English and Colonial soldiers were in a state of full-blown war.

I’d be willing to bet that many Americans have a vague—at best—understanding of the state of the nascent nation in 1776.

Of course, I’m not here to rue Joe Public’s historical ignorance; I’m here to talk board games. And when I think of games about the American Revolutionary War, there is one title that immediately springs to mind: Mark Herman’s We The People, published by Avalon Hill in 1994. Astute readers will be quick to point out the title has nothing to do with the Declaration of Independence or the American Revolutionary War, referencing as it does the Constitution that would be drafted 10 years after Independence Day. It doesn’t really matter, because We The People is the best game on the subject matter by a long shot, and is the most approachable and most enjoyable, as well.

It’s also something of a revolutionary title in itself. It broke many established expectations about the kinds of “conflict simulation” war games that publishers such as Avalon Hill had been known for since the 1970s. It signaled a shift away from the old “hex and counter” style of presentation, instead presenting the Colonies as a point-to-point map with abstracted, high-level geography. The detail level, at least in terms of the components, is low. There are no counters representing different units or divisions. Instead large, stand-up figures representing leaders such as Washington and Cornwallis are stacked with numerical tokens to indicate army strengths. There is also a political element, where placing political control markers are as important as winning battles.

Components on display, including the all-important game-driving cards.

But most significantly, the game introduced a new way of presenting the details and narrative of historical subject matter. It’s generally acknowledged as the inception point for the “card-driven war game” genre. The concept is that each player has a hand of playing cards that depict historical figures, events or circumstances that have game effects that help the player or hinder the opponent. These cards are also used as a kind of currency, and can be played to activate leaders to move on the map. In concert with the strategic state of the game at any given time, this can create a multitude of tactical possibilities—yet the player always has a tangible and manageable decision tree based on the cards in hand.

Combat is diceless, and it is one of the more controversial elements of the game. Players draw a number of cards from a special deck based on the overall command rating of their general, along with any bonuses. The cards represent various maneuvers and battlefield-level actions, so the scope of the game effectively changes while remaining abstract enough to keep detail and complexity in control. It’s possible to go into a major battle with more cards than your opponent and lose due to a bad draw. But such is life—and the fortune of war.

We The People is so successful—as well as influential and widely beloved—because it breaks from the tradition of dry, analytical military games and presents the American Revolution as a narrative story and not as a cryptic morass of numbers, symbols and rules. It’s easy to learn and it plays in about two hours if both players have some familiarity with the game. It’s important to note that prior to We the People, if you told a war-gamer that you were going to play a game about the entire American Revolution, they’d tell you to clear your weekend.

The military situation in 1777, as depicted in cardboard.

Herman, the designer, would later use a similar but more complex system in another game that many consider superior: Hannibal: Rome Versus Carthage. And since its publication in Avalon Hill’s twilight years, it’s gone on to inspire countless other card-driven war games covering everything from the First World War to the War on Terror. But few have hewed close to this game’s simplicity and ease of play.

For many years, We the People was out of print and very highly in demand. Copies would sell in the aftermarket in the $100-$200 range, depending on condition, and even beat-up “player’s copies” would sell for $75 or more. In 2010, the game was republished by the venerable war-game company GMT with some extensive re-design work executed by Mr. Herman himself and all-new artwork and presentation.

Many fans of the original game still prefer the classic version, so it remains valuable, although the days of it demanding a Ben Franklin seem to be over. Copies of the first edition circulate currently around $50-$60. Whatever the cost, it’s a fine and—in fact—very important game. So if it gets too hot outside this July 4th or the fireworks show is rained out, hit up a thrift store or online auction and take a look at this exciting recreation of how America became the United States.

Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.

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