eXcursions

Monday eXcursion: Wars of Succession

“In 1688 Europe drew swords in a quarrel which, with one uneasy interlude, was to last for a quarter of a century. Since the duel between Rome and Carthage there had been no such world war.”

Winston Churchill – Marlborough His Life And Times.

WoStitle

The 127 year period between 1688 (England’s “Glorious Revolution”) and 1815 (the defeat of Napoleon) has often been called the Second Hundred Years’ War between France and England given it includes the  Nine Years War (1688 – 1697), the War of Spanish Succession (1701 – 1714), the War of Austrian Succession (1741 – 1748), the Seven Years War (1756 – 1763), the American War of Independence (1776 – 1783) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815).

French wargame developer AGEOD have already covered three of these wars in their previous titles – Rise of Prussia deals with Frederick the Great and the Seven Years War. Birth of America (and Birth of America II) covered the American War for Independence. Napoleon’s Campaigns and Wars of Napoleon covered the Napoleonic Wars.

With Wars of Succession, AGEOD have now gone back to an earlier period of the Second Hundred Years’ War and crafted a game that looks at the War of Spanish Succession – what Churchill noted as the first ever “World War” that pitted the French Bourbon dynasty under the great Louis XIV at the height of his reign, against the Hapsburg dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire, the English, and the Dutch. The prelude to the war was the death of the King of Spain (the infamously inbred Charles II) without an heir. Both France and Austria claimed the throne – and although the Spanish Empire was in decline, victory for either would see them as the largest and pre-eminent power in Europe.

The only other computer strategy game that looks at this conflict is Creative Assembly’s Empire: Total War. Starting in 1700, that game gives you all the pomp and ceremony of redcoats marching across the battlefield, but lacks the strategic nuance of the war of maneuver that Wars of Succession captures so well.

Set on an extremely detailed map of Europe consisting of several thousand provinces, AGOED’s Wars of Succession is a turn based, strategic level wargame covering the first 15 years of the 18th Century. The game models the strategic warfare between the French on the one hand, and the Alliance powers on the other. Based on a WEGO model, both the player’s and the AI’s moves are executed simultaneously at the end of the turn. The mechanics will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played an AGEOD game before, as Wars of Succession is based on the same game engine the developer has been using for the last dozen years or so. As noted below, this has its own positives and negatives. The real barrier to entry for most players with this game however will be unfamiliarity with the context in which the game is set. It can be somewhat paralyzing to start up a complex game like this, and be faced with a myriad of choices.

Both sides start off with National Morale of 100. If your National Morale increases to 150 you win – conversely if it drops to five, you lose. National Morale is gained by winning battles (which give you small gains) or holding important cities (which give you larger gains). Similarly, you will lose National Morale by losing battles or cities.

WoS1

The Game Map – unfortunately much will be unused…

The game map itself stretches from Scotland to Syria, and includes various “off map” boxes representing ports outside Europe, including in North and South America. However the important victory point locations are clustered around the historical areas of conflict in the Netherlands, Southern Germany and Northern Italy – although it can be worthwhile to send an expedition force to more remote areas outside these locations. For example, the French player receives a regular income of gold from the Spanish treasure fleets that arrive from the Americas, but only so long as the French hold the port of Cadiz in southern Spain. On that basis, it makes sense for the Allied player to attempt to emulate the Allies actual expedition of 1702 to try and take Cadiz (which failed historically) as well as the neighbouring province of Gibraltar (which the Allies did take, and the United Kingdom has held ever since).

But apart from these smaller excursions, most of the game is spent along a front line that (perhaps unsurprisingly in a conflict between France and Germany) mirrors in parts the Western Front of trenches from the First World War, stretching from the Dutch coastline down to the Swiss Alps. However unlike the static trench warfare of WW1, the War of Spanish Succession was typified by relatively small armies marching, counter-marching, advancing and falling back. Both the French and Allied forces would shadow each other for months on end, staying close enough to each other to be a threat, but not so close as to actually come to blows, unless it was on the most favourable of terms.

With the French Bourbons claiming the Spanish throne, and a strategic military threat to its South, the Emperor ordered his commander-in-chief, Prince Eugene of Savoy, to lead the Empire’s army into Italy. It is here, in July 1701 that the game begins…

WoS2

The Fortress Zone.

Well, at least it is where it begins in two of the game’s five scenarios. The introductory scenario is only focused on Prince Eugene’s campaign in Northern Italy. The second scenario is the full Spanish Succession War scenario that lasts for 175 monthly turns from 1701 to 1714. The other three scenarios start later in the Spanish Succession War (1706 and 1709) and there is one campaign set in the Great Northern War (oh yeah I forgot to mention there was a whole other war going on at the same time between Charles XII of Sweden and an anti-Swedish alliance of Poland and Russia. This gets a 195 turn scenario too).

When you start the full 175 turn scenario, the action is initially limited to Northern Italy. No other country has joined the war yet, but the game tracks “Anti-Bourbon Sentiment” that gradually increases. If you’re the Allies, the game tells you that doing things like fighting French armies in Northern Italy will raise this level. Once sentiment is high enough, other countries will enter the war on the side of the Grand Alliance against France. If this sentiment tracks back down however, then countries will leave the Alliance, and may even join the Bourbons (as happened during the actual war, with countries like Portugal switching sides).

But back now to Prince Eugene for the moment – Churchill described him as “the most renowned commander in Europe” who in the summer of 1701 was facing a French army under Catinat occupying Mantua and the Po valley, “holding the line of the Adige River from the foot of Lake Garda to the territories of the Venetian Republic”.

WoS3

Two Generals of Verona.

You can tell the developers have done their homework. The game presents the exact situation as Churchill describes it, with Catinat sitting in Mantua next to the Adige River. The question is then, what to do next?

In large, complex games like this, that is often the first and last question that is asked, as there are so many moving parts, and no clear guide on what to do. But at its heart, Wars of Succession is relatively simple – consisting of four basic gameplay elements: Movement, Economics, Diplomacy and Recruitment.

  • Movement consists of a simple “drag and drop” of your armies into the region you want them to go. After you hit ‘end turn’ the computer will move all sides simultaneously (aka WEGO, as described above)
  • Economics is abstracted – you get a regular income of gold, troops and supplies every month
  • Diplomacy is not the usual 4X model of bartering. Instead, you only have a series of simple yes/no options that pop up when certain requirements are met. For example, you never negotiate an alliance with Prussia – once your National Morale is at a certain level you are simply given the option to become allies in return for payment of resources.
  • Recruitment is probably the most complicated mechanic – you have to switch to the  recruitment map and drag and drop units you want to create onto the correct provinces where they can be built (shaded green).

An important issue to remember is that throughout the whole game, whatever side you play, you control all allies so the above elements are managed for all countries you control.

On top of those basic systems, the game does employ a level of number crunching that you don’t see – mainly to work out if what you thought would happen, actually happens. For example, Prince Eugene starts with a powerful army (with a power rating of over 3,000, one of the most powerful in Europe). But large powerful armies are slow, and the game also models “traffic jams” of lots of bodies trying to move along unpaved roads. The upshot of this means your army may not move at all for a month when you wanted it to be in the next province. Alternatively, another army may have moved into your province before you could move out, either bringing you into battle, or at least preventing you from moving.

This brings up one of the unique features of AGEOD strategy games that I have not seen repeated in any other computer wargame: enemy armies can quite happily sit in the same province but not be in combat with each other. This is based on the system of “stances.” Armies can have both “attacking” and “defensive” stances. Two armies will only battle each other if they are in the same province and at least one has an “attacking” stance. If both armies have “defensive” stances, no battle will take place. This ties in with the “activation” mechanic. All armies are led by generals who are randomly assigned an “active” or “inactive” posture during a turn (better generals have a better chance of being active each turn). Only those generals who have rolled an “active” posture can take “attacking” stances.

WoS4

Diplomacy is limited to a series of decisions.

The activation mechanic is an example of how removing player agency can actually increase the immersion of a game. Time and again during the real war, opposing armies would approach each other, only to hesitate at the last minute and pull back. The Commander in Chief of the Allied forces, the English Duke of Marlborough, was famously held back by his allies several times from engaging with the French. In his history of the war, Winston Churchill describes one occasion when Marlborough was co-commanding a joint English and Dutch force with the “Dutch Deputies”. Coming across a French army, Marlborough convinced the Deputies to attack, only for the Deputies to veto the attack at the last minute.

This mechanic allowed me, in one of my playthroughs as the Grand Alliance, to almost exactly replicate the 1702 campaign of the Duke of Marlborough. Moving my forces south from Nijmegen along the West bank of the Meuse River, I took Venlo and Liege, all the while keeping my forces well ordered to repulse any attack by the French under Tallard.

WoS5

It’s not Google Maps, but it’s close.

Once you have the basics like the above under your belt, the grand strategy elements of the game start to open up and you can see how to plan an overall strategy for the war. At the start, the French have the largest armies, and its central position lets it easily reinforce any frontline. But they cannot be everywhere. The Grand Alliance surround the French, and can attack from multiple angles. This indeed was the historical Alliance strategy. But for the first few years of the war, the Allies will be on the defensive, trying to keep the French forces split up by attacking from different theatres.

Unfortunately, this is the point where the game engine starts to struggle. The more units that are active, the longer the turn processing time takes (which can be a few minutes). The engine itself is limited to a single core, so even on a fast PC, the map cache loads slowly which means panning around the map is sluggish. Although you could also argue the age of the engine means it is very stable and does not crash (at least I have not had any crashes, but there are reports of crashes on AGEOD forums and in reviews), and will run on older hardware (albeit just as slow as on newer hardware).

Another issue is that one of the hallmarks of a wargame is the ability to “crunch the numbers” of combat that takes place. But in Wars of Succession, it’s impossible to calculate the odds of any given battle. Even the “power” ratings for your armies are not exact representations of the relative strength of two forces. This means your strategic calculus often boils down to having a much larger stack than the enemy.

The UI also has problems with displaying all the information you need. Some of your forces are shown in the force outliner on the side of the map, but many of them are not – you will need to delve into a sub-menu (with the correct filters turned on) to see all your forces. This failure to make information readily available to the player is important when the game “locks down” many of your armies and will only activate them when certain preconditions are met. However you are not told when they “unlock” so I often had an army that I sorely needed just sitting in its starting province because I had not checked to see if it was operational.

I guess you could say the game is historically accurate, but technologically limited. The music in the game is another example of this – the game plays music composed by Jean-Baptiste Lully, who was actually one of Louis XIV’s court musicians, and composed a number of baroque chamber pieces. But the game only has around a dozen tracks, which quickly become repetitive.

Basically the game engine is just old. The only multiplayer is emailing save files to the other player, and there is only a very limited modding community. In fact, Wars of Succession will be the last game developed on it. AGEOD’s partnership with Slitherine means their new title will be built on a new engine – it has not yet been revealed what it will be.

Campaign in North Italy

So let’s go back to Prince Eugene once more. He is active at the moment (indicated by a small white envelope on his unit), we put him in an attacking posture and send him down to take out the French force at Mantua. There’s not much else to so, so we end turn.  

When a battle commences, you are presented with an option to select your strategy for the upcoming engagement.

WoS6

If your leader is good enough, you get to see their formations before battle.

The game then auto-resolves the battle based on a number of factors that include, but are not limited to, relative power, terrain, weather, tactics, leadership, entrenchment, bravery of units, amount of ammunition, accuracy of units, etc.

WoS7

Here we have the victory screen.

Given our power rating is over double that of Catinant, we win easily. The Anti-Bourbon Sentiment rises by five points to 25. When it hits 40, the English (and their army under the Duke of Marlborough) will enter the war. The battle also gives us one whole point of National Morale!

After the battle, Catinat retreats into the fortress of Mantua. Fortresses play a significant part in the game and the player is given a number of options to deal with them. You can besiege a fortress and wait several turns for it to surrender. This can be hurried along by spending resources to do things like sapping the walls, or even offering the besieged forces the opportunity to leave the fortress with their flags and honour intact. Alternatively, you can choose to assault the fortress.

WoS8

Catinat retreats!

Even though we won that battle, the disorder that arises from marching and fighting means Prince Eugene’s power rating here has dropped from 3,500 to 2,600. But he is still well above Catinat’s power rating of 1,500. Power ratings are dependent on three factors: the number of troops in your army, their cohesion, and their supply. Moving your troops more than a province lowers their cohesion (and your power rating) quite precipitously – a 3,000 power army can quickly reduce down to a 300 power army just by moving across a mountain range. Cohesion will quickly build back up once you stop moving, but you shouldn’t plan to be expecting to fight a battle at the end of a long march without at least having one turn (a month) or more in position. Similarly, moving into regions without supply will very quickly reduce your forces’ strength.

But with the advantage on our side, we assault! And the fortress falls!

WoS9

Louis XIV called it Fake News.

Catinat retreats again, south of the Po River. Leaving the road to Milan open! If you are familiar with the historical campaign in Northern Italy, you would know that after Catinat lost his initial battle with Prince Eugene, he retreated West, behind the Adige River to protect the route to Milan, not South which left Milan unguarded. For a player without this historical knowledge, it may be tempting to chase Catinat across the Po River – but this shorter, tactical move would give up the larger, strategic goal of securing the Lombardy region. But the game does not tell you any of that strategy in terms other than a vague direction to engage the French forces in Northern Italy. Again, it is left up to the player to know the history themselves.

WoS10

Forza Milano!

The game mechanics shown in just these couple of turns capture the tension inherent in a strategic war of maneuver as described by Churchill. With armies in such close proximity to each other, every turn there are tense decisions to make – do you leave your army where it is, in good order and at full strength, but not defending a critical objective? Or do you move to defend the objective, but run the risk of being caught in disorder and lose a major battle? The AI is usually pretty good at concentrating its forces and taking victory point locations, which give you the VPs you need to win the war.

In 1704, the French concentrated their forces and launched a strike at Vienna, the capital of the Empire. Victory would mean the disintegration of the Grand Alliance, and victory for Louis XIV. But Louis’ forces were turned back by Marlborough and Prince Eugene at the Battle of Blenheim, which turned out to be the pivotal moment of the war, but not the end. In fact, the war dragged on for another ten years, long after Marlborough was recalled from his post as commander in chief by the inward looking Tory government. In the end, the war was more or less a draw. The Bourbons kept the Spanish throne, but gave up their claims on the Spanish Netherlands and Northern Italy. Marlborough retired to Blenheim Palace (where Winston Churchill would eventually be born). But for Prince Eugene, he took up the banners in another corner of the Empire and marched back to war.

TL;DR; Wars of Succession is a detailed wargame about the conflict between the French and the Allied Powers of England, Austria and the Dutch in the early 1700s. Players move their forces on a detailed map of Europe with WEGO turns. The objective is to capture VP cities to boost your country’s score. Players don’t need to worry about economics, but do need to construct troops regularly to build up their forces. Unless you have a good understanding of the conflict and have read other material about the war, what you are meant to be doing can be confusing to the player.

You might like this game if:

  • You are interested in 18th century European history
  • You like reading other source materials about a game
  • You just want strategic level warfare with no tactical battles

You might NOT like this game if:

  • You do not like games with dated game engines and interfaces
  • You want to play a fast paced game
  • You want a traditional 4X game with building and economic decisions

Sam purchased this game himself and has played 20+ hours on a Core i5-6600k processor, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 and 16GB DDR4RAM.

4 replies »

  1. The article is missing a byline, it would be interesting to know who plays this.
    I’ve gotten a few AGEOD games in a couple of very cheap bundles, but they’re very intimidating and I’ve never got around to play them. Knowing the issues the engine has doesn’t help, but still, I’d be interested in some guidance. Maybe a good AAR is all it takes, since it has difficulty options.
    Also, huzzah for including The Great Northern War.

    Like

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