Battleplan: American Civil War Review (PC)

Battleplan: American Civil War is a slightly odd take on warfare. The idea here is that warfare is all about the strategic decisions; moving troops, building bridges and defences on the fly, ensuring artillery are supplied with ammunition and the importance of a battlefield commander. But that doesn't really describe it, that makes it sound like some kind of slow-paced experience where you meticulously plan every move, rubbing your palm against your beard-face (or your hopefully non-bearded lady-face) in moments of stern contemplation.

In fact Battleplan is an incredibly fast-paced game, with each battle taking a few short minutes as you try and outmanoeuvre your opponent's troops and take control of the objectives scattered across the map. Battleplan caught me by surprise with its direct attitude and fast-pace. You move troops by selecting or dragging a box around them then drawing arrows to where you want them to move. Each command must be relayed from your commander unit which takes a couple of seconds as they send out the orders.

The games aesthetic closely resembles on of those tables with the little models you see Generals sweating over in war films

Battles can be paused at any time, and it's generally a good idea to issue a set of commands in pause mode, then allow them to play out. Troops can use trees for cover, move in tandem or independently and will automatically fire upon enemies when in range. Choke points such as bridges can give your troops an advantage if you catch an enemy on them, while most units are able to build makeshift bridges to ford rivers. There are other variables that affect the outcome of battles, but for the most part it's a refreshingly simple and fast approximation of warfare.

The game's presentation is mixed, obviously it's based upon real historical events, with each battle styled after a real-life counterpart. For the American Civil War buffs and history enthusiasts, each scenario sits alongside a detailed written account of the real events, a pleasing nod that grounds the mostly isolated battles in their real context. Although the strategic map we see is relatively simple in terms of features, it's pleasant enough to look at.

Less easy on the eye are the depictions of each unit. They are essentially represented by a blue block of stacked cubes. The different shapes identify whether they are cavalry, infantry, artillery, a commander-in-chief or a supply wagon. It's an abstraction too far and takes away any sense of attachment you might have for an individual unit. Perhaps this is intentional, we're supposed to be a cold dispassionate commander, clinically moving our troops to maximise their effectiveness. But when a battle looks like a weird game of Tetris rather than anything approximating actual warfare, it is a real problem and I suspect this will turn-off most casual strategy gamers.

Detailed written accounts of the historical scenarios are probably the best thing about Battleplan

The real problem of Battleplan is that there's not a great deal to it. Yes, there are variables to consider like, wind speed and ammunition and it's a good touch that each unit has a profile of steady, cautious and aggressive that means they may outright refuse your orders if it goes against their commanders outlook. But the AI sometimes laughs in the face of the serious strategists by simply spamming all of its unit directly at objectives. The short length of battles and fiddly nature of moving troops can sometimes mean that this is actually an effective tactic, not for the grand flanking manoeuvre or dug in troops. Instead simply charge everyone across a bridge at an objective. For a game that purports to be a in-depth sim this is kind of unforgivable.

The campaign mode of the game allows you to play as either Confederate or Union forces, but there's no discernible difference between the two. The campaign mode has no carried through troops or units progression or indeed seemingly any persistence from one battle to the next. It's more of a string of skirmishes than a fully fledged campaign.

Quick battle allows you to ignore the lean trappings of the campaign to jump into a battle and you can choose to switch between historical or random reinforcements as well as choose between the game's three difficulty levels. Quick Battle does allow you play a no pausing version of the game, which provides a sterner challenge. Though that's mostly because selecting the actual unit you want and trying to get it to move is a fiddly affair at the best of times.

A depiction of the game at its more tense moment as blue cubes and grey cubes fight over an important objective

Battleplan actually has a pretty decent idea at its centre, the fast-paced and direct nature of the battles on display here feels refreshing at first. But the lack of any real depth and the spartan selection of features on offer mean it will struggle to keep you interested for long. The campaign mode could do with some kind of continuity or meta-game so you actually feel like you're fighting a war, rather than a string of barely connected scenarios. The order relay system is a neat touch, but a few neat touches are not really enough to salvage the game.

The majority of my time in Battleplan was spent trying to work out which kind of blue cubes performed what function and getting very annoyed when a unit arbitrarily decided that actually no, we won't follow your orders on this occasion - there seems to be very little rhyme or reason to their decision making. If you're looking for a complex and engaging representation of the American Civil War, you're better off looking elsewhere. Battleplan is too shallow and too invested in the novelty of its ideas, lacking the depth to ever back them up. With a little more effort put into presentation and a lot more variety on display it could've been unique. As it stands, it's just forgettable.

Best Game Moment: Executing a series of orders where the units actually go where you told them to.

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By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Jul 16, 2014
I bought into this, as a Civil War aficionado but like you Michael I'm pushed to find anything in this that will keep me coming back. Hot on the heels of "Ultimate General: Gettysburg" it's an absolute bomb! The history of each encounter is well done, promising a wealth, or at least a modicum of strategy but when taken to the map you'd be hard pressed to tell where you were fighting and what with. Use of 'Pause' is essential, as not only is issuing orders a task unto itself, but the Confederates in their light grey are very hard to see, when playing as the Union. They can be upon your lines before you know it...the FoW being ludicrous.
The battle of Shiloh, which they strangely have called Pittsburgh Landing (which is what it would have been called if the South had won) is virtually barren of trees, a major feature of the battle, and the gunboats played no role, that's if you pick up on the fact they are combat units.
One last gripe - units thinking about taking orders or not. Stupid design choice in a game where battles can be over in 5 minutes. Worse still, there's going to be DLC. That means, I'm guessing that we'll get the full game only by purchasing more content. Would have been better off in Early Access.