Saturday, August 4, 2018

Game Review - Clear the Decks! (Age of Sail Cooperative Ship-to-Ship Combat Card Game)

Set up of "Clear the Decks" - Jim Schmidt

Well, it’s been more than two years since I have posted.  Many reasons – a busy work and family life and – frankly – some burnout on the primary focus of this blog (Civil War medicine) and writing.
That said, I’ve been a very active reader the past two years and in the past 6-9 months, I’ve switched gears to another subject and have been immersing myself in reading about the Age of Fighting Sail, especially the period from the American War of Independence up to the Civil War, both fiction and nonfiction.

That reading has extended to following several groups on Facebook and it was about 6 months ago that I started to follow with great interest the development of a card game called “Clear the Decks” being developed by Chris Pinyan of Crispy Games Co. Evidently my “likes” and “Wows” and “Loves” on the game's Facebook page attracted Chris’s attention and he kindly offered me the opportunity to playtest a prototype copy of “Clear the Decks” as part of promoting his Kickstarter campaign, which runs through 16 August 2018.

Clear the Decks logo - Chris Pinyan

I have reviewed hundreds of books, many of them here on the blog, but I’ve never reviewed a game before, so this is a fun and interesting experience!

I decided to rate the game on several factors: Concept, Art, Rulebook, Playability, Scalability, and Expandability. As noted above, this was a prototype/pre-publication version and players should expect some changes in the final version.

Concept –> 5/5

I’ve absolutely enjoyed and loved my recent immersion into the Age of Fighting Sail, mostly through reading but also through film, visits to ships, including a visit to the USS Constellation (1854) in Baltimore, and building plastic scale models.

I’m not a regular gamer but I do like to play games.  A friend introduced me to “Magic: The Gathering” about 20 years ago, and I played that for several years; my oldest son and I played “Flames of War,” a WWII wargame for several years, 12-15 years ago, which combined gameplay with painting of 15mm miniatures. Since then, I’ve played other games with family and friends, including Battle Cry (Civil War), Memoir ’44 (WW2), 1775 Rebellion, Fluxx, Settlers of Cataan, and others.

I was looking for a fun Age of Sail game and there are some, but most of the games I found included an aspect of wind/sailing mechanics or focused on Exploration, rather than ship-to-ship combat.
What immediately drew me to “Clear the Decks,” was its simplicity as a card game and its emphasis on combat rather than sailing.  Likewise, on Facebook, his website, and in interviews, the developer explained his influences and motivations, and they were very much in line with my own – so not only had I found what looked like a fun game, I had also found a kindred spirit.

You will find a short introduction to the game in the video below.

Artwork -> 5/5

The developer has spared little expense in making this an attractive game.  The artwork by the talented Santiago Reinoso is engaging and pleasing.  It’s a testament not only to the artist but also to designer Chris Pinyan for effectively communicating his vision for the cards and tokens to the artist.

Lovely artwork enhances the enjoyment of the game - Chris Pinyan

 Rulebook -> 3/5

If I could offer advice on an area for improvement, it would be the rulebook, which you can download freely here.

The good news is that the description of the setup of the game is pretty clear. That said, I do not think actual gameplay is adequately described, and I actually learned more from some gameplay videos and other play tester reviews on YouTube.  Likewise, the rulebook included typing and grammatical errors (to be expected in a prototype) and – most disappointing - the aesthetics of the cards are markedly absent from the rulebook.

Gameplay -> 4/5

The most important part of the game is actual gameplay, and this is definitely a fun game to play!
I played both a 1-player game and a (solo) 2-player/2-hand game using one of the simpler ship scenarios (see Scalability, below).

My 24-pdr preparing to fire on an enemy ship gun - Jim Schmidt

 Setup took 5-10 minutes, which is just fine. Typical gameplay times are listed as 30-90 minutes, which sounds about right. While I played solo in terms of play testing, even my simulated 2-player game made the cooperative aspects evident, which the designer has emphasized.

I think a natural extension would be player vs. player (see Expandability, below) rather than the cooperative scenario against the enemy ship as designed.

The Ship Event and Fortune cards are my absolute favorites, as are the Tactics cards.

Some of my favorite Fortune, Tactic, and Ship Event cards from the game - Jim Schmidt
 I found the enemy ship “Crew” and “Boarder” cards to be interesting but I think their function as separate (and multiple) draw decks to unnecessarily complicate otherwise straightforward and entertaining game play. Finally, periodic references on the cards to “discarding a random card” seems silly and there is no mechanism in the rules to ensure that randomness (for instance, making another player remove the card from your hand).I would change to simply "discard."

I have not played enough to be able to remark on typical game outcomes. One reviewer had noticed that the cooperating players won every time against the enemy ship in their several sessions, but that may be anecdotal. For my part, I felt like the proportion of “Ammunition” cards to other cards (Fortune, Officers, Marines, Tactics, etc) in my hand was excessive, which limited my ability to exercise some game options, but the designer has indicated that there is some mathematical rationale in the ratio of Ammunition cards in game play.

A description of game attack mechanics - Chris Pinyan

 But, make no mistake:  I thoroughly enjoyed playing the game!

Scalability -> 4/5

I think the designer has done a great job in this aspect. The game can be played with 1-4 players, with enemy ships comprising 2, 3, or 4 card stacks, and even among those ships there are no less than nine options – from a small cutter to a brig to a frigate (although I wonder why he did not include the option for a multi-deck “ship of the line”).

Multiple game boards allow for different size enemy ships - Chris Pinyan

In any case, especially for multiple players and larger enemy ship options, game play will not be repetitive.

Expandability -> 5/5 

I think there is great potential here for expandability from the “base” game.

I already hinted at the natural extension to player vs. player rules above.

While playing the game and studying the cards, I was already thinking of some of my own design (not that the designer may not have already thought of them himself):

Ship Event (benefits the enemy ship): “Mutiny” – an immediate effect in which the next player loses their turn and all officers in his handbut is still subject to counterattacks from the enemy ship

Fortune (benefits a player) – “Prize Money” – several options – draw new cards…more cards allowed in hand for 1 or 2 turns…ability to have more than one type of cannon, etc.

The possibilities are (almost) endless and I can certainly envision a card “expansion pack.” 

To add an aspect of “verisimilitude” I did a setup of the game with one of the model ships I had built and with some (unpainted) 15mm miniatures as “boarders.” Indeed, while it is essentially a card game in terms of play, the inclusion of ship boards and tokens means that it is not entirely portable, is boxed, and affords the possibility of some figures, etc

"En garde!" cry the Boarders! I set up the game with a ship model and some miniatures - Jim Schmidt

 I do hope that the designer takes advantage of building a player community where players can log game scenarios and outsomes, participate ina forum, suggest new cards, etc.


My overall score for “Clear the Decks” is 4.3, decidedly above average – highly recommended for game and Age of Sail enthusiasts.

Finally, although I have a very playable prototype, courtesy of the designer, I am pleased to say that I am a backer of this Kickstarter  project!

Many thanks again to Chris Pinyan for the review copy and I wish him every success.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Free State of...Texas (Book Review: "Lone Star Unionism")

Reading this book and writing this review comes at a great time with the forthcoming release of the much-anticipated film, The Free State of Jones! And as you'll see below, there is a specific connection between the book and the film!

First, I want to thank the kind people at the University of Oklahoma Press for sending me a review copy of  Lone Star Unionism, Dissent, and Resistance: Other Sides of Civil War Texas (2016), edited by Jesús F. de la Teja.  

One of the great benefits of an edited volume of essays is that it gives the opportunity for scholars to write on interesting, but focused, topics that may not warrant book-length treatment; this book also makes accessible a collection of scholarship presented at a symposium at Texas State University in 2014. On both counts, OU Press has done readers a great favor.

I was originally attracted to this book for several reasons:

a) my own reading, research, and writing as relates to Civil War-era Texas, as expressed in my own book, Galveston and the Civil War (2012)

b) an interest in Southern Unionists and other examples of dissent and resistance (including slaves and abolitionists), especially in Texas (e.g., see posts here and here)

c) I was already acquainted with and admire the work of four of its contributors: Victoria E. Bynum, W. Caleb McDaniel, Richard B. McCaslin, and Walter D. Kamphoefner.

If one takes the main title of the book as its presumed mission, I'd say it satisfies it only if very broadly defined.  However, in terms of the subtitle - "Other Sides of Civil War Texas" - it excels in its scope, originality, and scholarship.

The publisher's overview:

Most histories of Civil War Texas—some starring the fabled Hood’s Brigade, Terry’s Texas Rangers, or one or another military figure—depict the Lone Star State as having joined the Confederacy as a matter of course and as having later emerged from the war relatively unscathed. Yet as the contributors to this volume amply demonstrate, the often neglected stories of Texas Unionists and dissenters paint a far more complicated picture. Ranging in time from the late 1850s to the end of Reconstruction, Lone Star Unionism, Dissent, and Resistance restores a missing layer of complexity to the history of Civil War Texas.

The authors—all noted scholars of Texas and Civil War history—show that slaves, freedmen and freedwomen, Tejanos, German immigrants, and white women all took part in the struggle, even though some never found themselves on a battlefield. Their stories depict the Civil War as a conflict not only between North and South but also between neighbors, friends, and family members. By framing their stories in the analytical context of the “long Civil War,” Lone Star Unionism, Dissent, and Resistance reveals how friends and neighbors became enemies and how the resulting violence, often at the hands of secessionists, crossed racial and ethnic lines. The chapters also show how ex-Confederates and their descendants, as well as former slaves, sought to give historical meaning to their experiences and find their place as citizens of the newly re-formed nation.

Concluding with an account of the origins of Juneteenth—the nationally celebrated holiday marking June 19, 1865, when emancipation was announced in Texas—Lone Star Unionism, Dissent, and Resistance challenges the collective historical memory of Civil War Texas and its place in both the Confederacy and the United States. It provides material for a fresh narrative, one including people on the margins of history and dispelling the myth of a monolithically Confederate Texas.

And now to the review! I'm going to start with what I thought were the strongest contributions:

Victoria Bynum's "East Texas Unionism: Warren J. Collins, Big Thicket Jayhawker" is excellent.  It's Bynum's book, The Free State of Jones, Movie Edition: Mississippi's Longest Civil War, that is the basis for the forthcoming film, and the chapter comes closes to what I hoped the book would encompass in terms of exploring themes of Texas Unionism.  It's a terrific integration of folklore, geography, family migration from Mississippi to Texas, backwoods life, conflict between poor whites and commercial planters, participation of Collins family members in Newt Knight's Unionist guerilla band in Mississippi, and a transition into 20th century political life.  The research is exceptional and the story is very interesting.

I had the privilege and pleasure of seeing Walter D. Kamphoefner speak about Germans and the Civil War several years ago when I still lived in Texas.  Like Bynum, his chapter - "New Americans or New Southerners? Unionist German Texans" - also comes close to what I was hoping from in the book's mission.  It's a very good summary of German-American sentiment in Texas in the Civil War era, and in other states, including Missouri, where I live now, so it also appealed to me on that level.  Her examines slave ownership, voting records, enlistment in Union and Confederate units, post-war recriminations and/or assimilation, analysis of German-American correspondence and more.  An especially interesting aspect was the adoption of the German language by some African-Americans in Texas. Apart from a disappointing, unnecessary, and uncharitable ad hominem insult that closes the chapter, it is an excellent piece of work.

I have interviewed Caleb W. McDaniel on this blog before and admire his scholarship very much, and his chapter - "Involuntary Removals: "Refugeed Slaves" in Confederate Texas" - does not disappoint.  The focus of the chapter is the influx of slaves into Texas in the war years - swelling the estimated slave population by an additional 50,000-150,000, owing to an exodus of slaveholders from other states, especially Louisiana and Arkansas.  The best part of this chapter dispels the myth of the "faithful slave" and discusses African-Americans Unionism and dissent, especially in terms of runaways. What's especially impressive about McDaniel's contribution - and most others in the book - is that they are original contributions to scholarship and literature and that shows up in the diligence in the research as evidenced in the endnotes.  Especially interesting in McDaniel's case is his utilization of the Weeks family correspondence.

McDaniel's chapter is actually one of at least four chapters that focuses on the African-American experience in Texas in the era.  Other chapters focuses on "Slave flight," "African-American women and racial violence," and "Juneteenth."Of the three besides McDaniel's, "Slave flight" relied too heavily on newspaper accounts and did not exhibit the breadth or depth of research that other contributions in this book did; likewise, the chapter on Juneteenth did not add much in the way of new scholarship in my opinion.  However, Rebecca A. Czuchry's chapter, ""In Defense of Their Families: African-American Women, the Freedmen's Bureau, and Racial Violence During Reconstruction in Texas," was exceptional and one of the strongest in the book. It makes for interesting, if uncomfortable, reading owing to an emphasis on the sexual crimes against African-American women in post-war Texas. 

Richard B. McCaslin's Tainted Breeze: The Great Hanging at Gainesville, Texas, 1862, is one of my favorite books, and he builds on it with his excellent chapter, "A Texas Reign of Terror: Anti-Unionist Violence in North Texas." 

Another chapter in the book - on Edmund J. Davis - was interesting, but offered little more than straight biography. The introductory chapter on "Collective Memory of a Confederate Texas" was interesting but seemed an odd choice t introduce the other subject matter.

In terms of learning something new, I really enjoyed Omar Valerio-Jimenez's chapter, "Although We Are the Last Soldiers: Citizenship, Ideology, and Tejano Unionism," as it was an entirely new subject to me and it was an outstanding contribution to this group.

Of the 10 chapters in the book, 6 are truly outstanding, and the others are average or above - it's a good mix of material and highly recommended reading. 4 to 4 1/2 stars out of 5, for sure.

The one thing I would have liked to seen covered was a discussion of institutionalized suppression of civil liberties in Texas by the Confederate government - something along the lines of Mark Neely's (1999) Southern Rights: Political Prisoners and the Myth of Confederate Constitutionalism. My own research indicates there is a lot to explore in terms of secret police activities, imprisonment, confiscation of property, etc., against Unionists in Texas.

Many thanks again to the University of Oklahoma Press.