Revolutionary War Games: Fighting Redcoats on your Table Top

They don’t make ’em like this much anymore. Pictured is the box proclaiming that 1776 is “The Game of the American Revolutionary War.”

With the Fourth of July rapidly approaching, our thoughts turn to things like hot dogs and made-in-China fireworks as we celebrate our nation’s independence. For the board game collector or player, these ruminations about life, liberty and the pursuit of explosions and grilled meats may also turn to hobbyist concerns. Specifically, the fact that there really aren’t very many good, modern games (other than complex conflict simulations) about the American Revolution that precipitated this beloved summertime holiday.

Last year, I covered the classic Avalon Hill game We the People in honor of Independence Day and it definitely represents a best-in-class example of the Revolutionary War in tabletop gaming terms. There’s simply nothing better at telling the story of the war between the American colonies and their British rulers, nothing better at capturing the personalities, events and sweep of historical narrative.

With that said, there are some other games that have covered the Revolutionary War but, with a few notable exception from the past decade, almost all hail from the 1970s, reaching back into the “golden age” of hobby gaming. This also means that these games tend to be very classical “hex and counter” style wargames with what would today be considered rather inaccessible rules complexity and play time. And they also tend to have quite antique production values—no miniatures, few cards and lots of cardboard chits to represent units. Many of these games have been lost to time and disinterest, holding little value to players or collectors.

Avalon Hill’s 1776 is one of the few early American Revolution games that has stuck around, if only as a very niche title. Published in 1974 for those that wanted to get in on the Bicentennial excitement early, 1776 is one of the better known and more widely played Revolutionary War titles, offering a broad view of the conflict’s action spanning the thirteen colonies and Canada. The box copy promises “six games in one package” and, sure enough, there are six different ways to play: There’s a basic game (which is probably still considered pretty complicated by today’s standards); a more detailed advanced game; as well a full war campaign simulation that likely takes days of playing to finish. They don’t make ’em like that anymore. Additionally, there are four scenarios ranging from early war actions, such as the 1775 Invasion of Canada, up through Washington’s defeat of Cornwallis in the 1781 Yorktown Campaign.

This represents about 1/500th of the components included in the 1776 box, including tactical cards used in conjunction with dice and cross-referenced Combat Result Tables (CRTs) to determine the outcome of battles. Whew.

Like a lot of games from this period, the focus is on conflict simulation, comprehensive military history and detail. Although there is nothing in the game that renders it unplayable today, it’s important for those looking to play this game (and similar titles) to note that there’s a very, very wide gulf between what game players in 1974 expected and what game players in 2013 want. If you want to take the dive, copies of 1776 can be found for as little as $10, but like a lot of 1970s board games, the collector’s market price can vary wildly. I’ve seen this game selling for as much as $100 in excellent condition with a complete component set—inclusive of more than 400 tiny counters representing the Continentals and their British antagonists. The game was also very well-supported by articles and additional content in The General, Avalon Hill’s house-published magazine.

The tradition of the classical hex-and-counter style wargames, rich in historical detail and tactical complexity, was brought forward into the 1990s and 2000s by GMT Games. Its Battles of the American Revolution Series doesn’t attempt to include the whole war in one box as 1776 did, instead breaking it down into sets that each focus on a particular campaign, battle or set of scenarios. The series, designed by Mark Miklos and illustrated by industry legend Rodger B. MacGowan, debuted in 1998 with Saratoga and has continued on through the 2013 release Newtown, stopping off in Savannah, Guilford and Monmouth among other theaters of battle along the way.

Rodger B. MacGowan’s plain, simple line art is a mainstay of the GMT product line, including Saratoga.

It’s not very fancy, but in a game with so many numbers and details like Saratoga, clarity is essential.

Although the games retain many qualities of classical wargaming, this series offers modern gamers a much more accessible option for exploring the American Revolution with easier rules and shorter playtimes—if not fewer chits. They are still very detailed, very specific games capturing many of the peculiarities of the era’s warfare, with considerations such as morale and supply proving to be almost as deadly as standing in a line and shooting at soldiers standing in another line and shooting at you.

The GMT Battles of the American Revolution Series titles are almost universally well-regarded by modern wargamers for both their playability and historicity, and other than the classic We the People, they may represent the best way for modern gamers to fight the Redcoats. They’re also fairly easy to acquire, with low aftermarket values ($20-$40) for those looking for previously played copies and ample stock almost always available through GMT and other retailers. GMT has also kept alive the wargaming tradition of in-house magazines offering additional game content, with its quarterly C3I publication, providing enthusiasts with more components, scenarios, and historical background.

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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