On #TBT, we bring you the occasional classic article – an older review or analysis piece we wanted to rescue
Michael Eckenfels, 28 May 2020
Tracking my soldiers through the filthy, musket-ball filled fields that faced Henry House Hill, I ordered a charge yet again. Grim, yet determined despite their young age, the soldiers of the two regiments moved stolidly up the slope into the waiting guns of the Confederates.
Developed & Published by Tower Games, which is now defunct
The words: “Chew yourselves up on our smoothbores, Yank!” suddenly appeared in the chat box on my computer monitor.
Their bluster didn’t match their bayonets, however, as the men in my group, outnumbered at least five to one, pushed the equally green Confederates off of Henry House Hill and scooted them in disarray to the south.
“Now what was that you were sayin’, Johnny Reb?” I answered back. No reply. I let my cavalry run rampant behind the Southern line, harassing Johnston and ruining all communications between his headquarters and his men.
Flustered, the other Confederate player irately stated, “Um, how come you let Palmer through? Invite him for tea, did you?”
Not Just a Battlefield, But Also a State of…Trash Talking
The above dialogue is just this reviewer’s attempt at remembering the banter that was tossed around in a game room on the Tower Games website. From this dialogue filling a small free-floating chat box, the ebb and flow of the first engagement between the North and the South in the spring of 1861 on the banks of Bull Run came to life. The panic, the exhortations, the jibes and cut-downs…it was all there, in all its glory, choreographed brilliantly with the on-screen action as my Union troops socked it good to the Confederates, pushing them right off of Henry House Hill. Imagine the fun of watching five Confederate regiments running like chickens before the might of two decimated Union regiments.
Granted, the Union had serious artillery support. But from this field of battle, and from this chat box, comes a unique and interesting product that Tower Games has produced for any and all Civil War buffs. Especially interested will be those who want to take on their peers in a turn-based, multi-player environment that is conducive to whatever interaction that the players see fit. “Play games with your friends,” says their website, and nothing could be closer to the truth.
Line of Muskets is a turn-based Civil War simulation that takes its flavor from hexagonal board games , sprinkling them with decent graphics and sound to create a game that, while simplistic in appearance, remains appealing to all–especially those with only 56K modems.
A Browser of a Game
When a player looks at Line of Muskets, he’ll likely go back to the good ol’ days (I said “ol’” not “old”) of Civil War board wargaming (such as Fury in the West, one of my favorites) where facing, formation, and morale are all critical to handling an army on the battlefield. Anyone with a soft spot for hexagon games, or anyone with an interest in the Civil War, owe it to themselves to give this game a look. While it doesn’t sport the flashy look of some recent Civil War titles for the computer, such as any of the Sid Meier products (dated, but still fun to play), this game leaves more to the imagination. As a result, it slides inside one’s head with the relentlessness of a bayonet. Fully capturing the fog-of-war, Line of Muskets gives a unique, bird’s eye-view of the battlefield, only letting the player see the territory and forces that can actually be seen by his men on the ground.
A General’s Burden Without the Worry
Each game is a scenario that recreates a battle of the Civil War. At this time, Tower Games has nine scenarios available. Three are free (the Solo Tutorial, Tutorial, and Pickett’s Charge – of which the latter two require two players) while the remaining six require one Tower token (four First Bull Run scenarios–for two, three, four, and five players respectively–and two Cedar Mountain scenarios, one for two players and the other for four players). The token-purchasing system allows players to get involved as much as they want, and even gives free tokens as a bonus for larger purchases.
The design of the scenarios is good, with historical units and commanders represented on the field as well as accurate terrain and objectives. Each is challenging, especially in the multiplayer games; I had the chance to play a four-player Bull Run with the staff of Tower Games, and coordinating attacks is vital to success–not to mention downright fun. A chat box window is available to trash talk or otherwise communicate appropriately with gaming peers, involving the player in the game even more.
The Tower Games designers have told me that a scenario for Antietam is in the works, and even more will come down the road as the site takes off.
The initial decisions are sometimes made for the player. Once a battle is chosen, players decide which side they want to play (as well as what commanders they wish to be)–but there’s a twist. This isn’t “first come first serve.” Instead, players rank their choices for each commander, choosing “Acceptable,” “Preferred,” or “Less Preferred.” The actual role the player assumes is not revealed until after the beginning of the game. While some people may not like this as it gives them little control over who they will ultimately direct, this unknown factor adds an exciting, and fun, element during the initial stages of the gameIt also adds a bit of realism to the mix; as Tower Games states, the generals of the Civil War sometimes couldn’t make their own decisions about whom they commanded–they were assigned and had to make the best of it.
Installation and Technical Issues
The game is entirely Web browser-based, so no game software is necessary to install– although to run it, a player will need the latest Java software, which can be downloaded for free through a handy link on the Tower Games website. The download is approximately 5GB.
Once Java is loaded, the game’s graphics become visible and the site starts the gamer off by dropping him into a chat room to meet other players who are looking for opponents and allies. Loading a game for the first time can be a bit disconcerting, as it takes a while to load, but the wait is worth it in the end. Once a game has been played, it takes less time later to load it up.
All documentation is Web-based, with all rules and tutorials viewable from the site. The tutorials are simple and easy to follow, and surprisingly short–but not in a bad way. This no-nonsense approach to teaching allows a player to quickly get the basics down without getting weighed down by too much extraneous information.
Graphics and Sound
The graphics are functional and, while somewhat Spartan, they are perfectly acceptable to any Grognard worth his weight in Minié balls. Trees, rivers, hamlets, roads–they’re all represented here in detail reminiscent of hex board games. The look is simplistic, but it is beautifully carried off, as no doubt Tower Games’s intent was to capture the appreciation that the board wargaming set has for such titles into their product.
The sound is equally functional: men shout when charging, muskets roll like drum kettles, and, my personal favorite which captures morale breaking, is the sound similar to a freezing cold branch snapping cleanly in two. They’re not overwhelming, which is okay in my book since I believe that if any of the five senses are overloaded, the game itself suffers in the translation. The designers of this title have pulled off a simple, easy-to-learn game and peppered it with just enough color and sound to make it interesting enough to return to again and again.
The mouse is the main component of this game, with the chat window obviously involving the keyboard to throw about whatever banter players desire. The menus are intuitive and follow each other in a prescribed pattern, making it virtually impossible for any gamer to get lost. For example, changing facing involves first double-clicking on the desired unit. Then, drop-down menus appear, asking the player what direction the unit should face, then what action should be performed while the unit shifts into position: move or fire. Firing is otherwise automatic, except for artillery that need to be given a command to do so every turn. This can be a bit of a pain at first, but the gamer will find, just as I did, that the battlefield can be quite fluid and one fire command on one turn may not be appropriate for the next.
The chat window is open to all players; I noted that it is possible for each side to talk to their own commanders…but in full view of the enemy. Tower Games has told me that this will be changed in the near future, allowing an ”all-sides” type of chat box that involves all players, and then a ”side-specific” box that allows one side to freely chat up the strategies necessary to bring the other guys down.
It’s very easy to jump right in and get both feet wet. Tower Games allows solitaire play against a computer opponent, which doesn’t cost the user a dime. Simply access the website, register with your e-mail address and arrive in a Club Room where other players are queuing up for their taste of battle. The Club Room allows players to chat as long as they’d like before proposing a new game. Once proposed, simply clicking on Join lets anyone in the room get on board. After a brief load time, the commander selection screen appears, and then the aforementioned wait for the battle once that is completed.
The game is structured so that some commands are smaller than others, and some players may be therefore subordinate to other players — a masterful touch, considering that any commander can screw up just as badly as any of his subordinates. The Civil War certainly proved that. In any case, the designers have informed me that the overall commander can set objectives for his subordinates, which is very interesting.
Each hex on the map is 180 yards across, and the player chooses if he wants the grid to be displayed or not. Players will fight over some of the more important hexes, clearly labeled ”Objectives” on the map. These can be displayed or not, based on the player’s choice. When displayed, a faded flag of the side possessing the objective hex will appear. Some objectives cover multiple hexes (such as the Turnpike next to Henry House Hill) and are only truly controlled if only one side occupies all hexes associated with the victory location. When occupied by two sides, the Objective is considered contested and no points are awarded to either side.
The turns are based on 30 minutes of real time, in which orders are carried out once all of them are submitted–the game will wait on each player to finish his contemplations before starting a new turn. Each player can control the troops under his particular command–that of armies, corps, and divisions–as well as commanders (that give vital support to morale) and artillery (punishing but very slow to move).
Morale is vital to this game. Each unit is rated according to its morale, which includes Elite, Veteran, and Green. The more experienced units will stay better organized, especially under fire, than less experienced ones. Units can become shaken or broken, the latter being worse than the former, which makes it even harder to issue orders to them.
Commanders help to offset this somewhat and need to be placed strategically as their radius of influence is limited. Orders issued to any units outside of this radius have a 50% less chance of actually being followed, making placement considerations vital. Even more important is knowing that these commanders can be further utilized to personally lead a brigade they are stacked with; this gives the brigade the leader is with an excellent bonus to morale but places the rest farther out of the command loop, which represents the leader losing sight of the ”big picture.”
The flexibility of this system is impressive and easily learned. While the gameplay may be simple, the decisions as to what to do are definitely not so. This is especially true of the multiplayer games, with more players meaning more possibilities.
The Pay As You Go subscription system is great, considering that some players may not wish to commit to a length of time measured by a calendar as in some of the big MMORPGs. As with the coin-operated arcade games of yesterday, the limit of gameplay is defined by the limit of tokens in your pocket.
Further, the interactivity on this site is excellent; players who gravitate here are buffs through and through, not the usual posers or individuals who are out looking to cause trouble for the good-hearted gamers. A game here is a serious simulation flavored with light-hearted banter exchanged between players; the banter adds to the game. Knowing one is sticking it good to a human player is always a much more enjoyable feeling than beating up on a poor defenseless AI.
I heartily recommend Line of Muskets to any one with an interest in the Civil War and the friendly competition of their fellow history buffs. Tower Games is a new company of unique vision and dedicated designers that deserves the support of the gaming community.
The player will need an up-to-date browser (the author uses Internet Explorer version 6.0.26) and a reliable Internet connection. The author has a 56K dial-up connection, and while load times were long (sometimes upwards of ten to fifteen minutes), they load faster when played later (cutting the time in half). Of course, this won’t be a consideration for high-speed users.
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