Fresh from the plane at Origins 2007 and into the fray! Off to Matrix Games, and the first lucky game on my plate is Forge of Freedom ... Mmmm, Civil War. I always liked the Civil War in history class.
Forge of Freedom is, in essence, a complete Civil War game. My conversation with Gil Renberg, however, started with an exchange about feedback and the effect that feedback has had on the game's framework. You see, it's apparently rather hard to create a "war" game that includes everything people want without forcing them to deal with stuff that they don't want. Some folks love the economics and logistics of war. They enjoy directing and protecting resources, growing technology bases, managing populations and ensuring that their war engine has the fuel it needs to hit fifth gear. Other folks love nothing so much as directing their troops in battle. They love to take advantage of terrain, flank the enemy, position artillery and manage the morale of their forces through thick and thin. Often, these folks don't get along - and we haven't even hit some of the other issues, such as "do we enjoy the diplomatic and political aspects of war?" This is something that Gil told me about in detail, because the company apparently tailored its game a tremendous amount based on the gripes and complaints of various strongly opinioned customers!
What Forge of Freedom understands is that war is heck, and people like heck. The problem is, they like differing flavors of heck, and they like it in disparate amounts. So how do you manage this problem? According to Gil, you create a game that has varying levels of granularity, and you allow people to play with the pieces of war that they love, while making sure that the game can take care of the pieces that they hate. This allows "big picture" folks to quickly resolve battles and get back to large-scale troop movements and resource management, while the highly tactical players can trim the fat on said large-scale issues and have tons of fun playing out every single battle that flares. One thing I'd like to note is that this "trimming" concept also applies to almost all of the random factors you see in war. Do you enjoy random elements like disease and its effects on an army? Great, it's in there! If you don't like it, however, it can be purged with the click of an option box.
Forge of Freedom plays out in four main arenas, and these arenas are controlled in two major screens augmented by an impressive list of summaries and organizational charts. The arenas in question are: tactical, political/social, economical and technological. The two main screens are a map of North America (covering what we would recognize as southern Canada on the northern border, and stretching as far west as was truly relevant to the Civil War), and a close-in representation of a given battle, which takes place on a hex map laid onto representative terrain. In the former screen, you will direct army movements, invest your resources in various areas of the country and make decisions that will affect the social climate for your chosen faction. In the latter, you will - quite bluntly - fight the battles that determine the outcome of the war. Allow me to explore each of these interfaces a bit more in depth.
First, tactical battle map. Units each have a resident hex, and they are assigned movement points - which I tend to think of as action points - that they will spend to move (obviously), attack, change formation and perform such maneuvers as "charges" (think Pickett's Charge). How these movement points play out depends on what type of unit is acting, how tired they are, what kind of terrain they're dealing with and a small host of other factors, including enemy position and counteractions. Troops will perform the assigned actions (what you spent those precious movement points on) with varying efficacy based on the quality of unit. This is a trait that is affected by how well-equipped your guys are, whether they have a leader (possibly a famous one!) and how veteran its members are. So, you're far more likely to see Stonewall Jackson's unit perform accurately and efficiently than you are to see greenhorn conscripts blaze across a battlefield.
Now that you know a little about what will be on this screen, what about winning the battle? Two main victory conditions exist - the first being your standard annihilation goal and the second being a take-and-hold condition that centers around a tactical segment of the map. Take the victory hex, hang onto it, and you've carried the day! By the way - if all of this sounds horridly boring, you can also play a condensed battle-game that allows you to issue larger-scale orders and have the computer resolve the battle. Still too much? Click "instant resolution," and let the AI figure ALL of it out! Customization, indeed.
Backing out to the larger-scale map, you'll take control of the same troops - but on a logistical scale. Move armies by land, rail and sea to cover important areas of the map. What makes these places important? Resources - such raw goods as iron, or perhaps resources in the form of populations centers. You may have CREATED resources, such as cities that contain a variety of buildings - like war colleges and capitols. While tackling all of these issues, this screen will also provide you with an interface to view the political climate. You can see how much various states are supporting your war effort (as represented by the attitudes of their governor), as well as what such foreign powers as England and France are up to. Keep a good watch on this screen, too, because a governor that doesn't like you can hinder your war efforts as much as a foreign power jumping in on your opponent's side! Of course, if you don't WANT to watch out for your, just click "disable governors" ... I bet you can guess what that does! This is also the place where you will promote and demote generals as suits the structure of your army and will evaluate the abilities of your various forces to determine where your leaders and teachers are required. Just about anything you can imagine what a large-scale war effort requires can be managed within a few clicks of this major screen. So, if you like this stuff and have it enabled, have at it!
At this point, it's useful for me to break and share a bit about the historical aspect of Forge of Freedom. Every time I turned around, Gil was sharing some piece of historically accurate behavior that was culled from various texts and knowledge bases. Personalities included in this game are REAL, and you'll find tons of portraits to mark the generals and governors that you manage, as well as mini-biographies that detail the strengths, weaknesses and general opinions of the game's stars. The best part is that this portion of the game is growing! The original release came with 175 personalities, and the latest patch pushed it up to (I believe) 250 biographies. I specifically asked if terrain was accurate (or at least representative) of the areas in which battles are fought, and indeed, it is - based on actual geological survey. No mountains in Kansas! Gil shared that the entrenching mechanics were based on actual texts that researched how it was done in the field, and similar research was done to detail the "misinterpretation of orders" mechanic. Forge of Freedom appears to do a tremendous job of appeasing the history buff while also providing an opportunity for the rest of us to learn a bit. However, the game never obsesses over detail and emphasizes playability and customization of game experience to suit each person's desire for realism.
From a technical perspective, the sound and video did a great job of enhancing the experience. The sound was nice and light, consisting mostly of symphonic pieces that I would consider patriotic to the two sides involved. Video has (as I already noted) a lot of neat portraits and map segments that really help set the mood when you're dealing with the logistics screen. Moving in to the tactical screen results in a classic hex map but complete with cannon, horse and infantry units to run about and blow each other up. Great fun!
Really, it's a shame that we have to consider such things as "length" and "readability" here at GamersInfo.net, because there are MANY awesome options that I don't have the space to detail. What I can share, however, is that the option screen is filled with such checkbox goodness that anyone should be able to create a "depth" of game that suits them and make it as realistically picky and chance-filled as they like - or as streamlined and focused as they desire. I encourage folks to give this game a thought next time you're looking for a war-sim, because Gil's time and energy spent with me here at Origins has ensured that I'll give it a whirl when I get home.