Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777 (Hollandspiele, 2016) is a very interesting design. Supply Lines looks like a wargame, but plays more like a Eurogame – and its not just because it has little wooden cubes!
First off, Supply Lines has a very eurogame-themed focus – logistics. Many games have supply rules (some too many rules) but none in my collection have placed logistics in this sort of prominent role. Before you go off saying logistics is unimportant, take a look at a few of these historical quotes:
“Gentlemen, the officer who doesn’t know his communications and supply as well as his tactics is totally useless.”
– Gen. George S. Patton, USA
“Forget logistics, you lose.”
– Lt. Gen. Fredrick Franks, USA, 7th Corps Commander, Desert Storm
“Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.”
– Gen. Robert H. Barrow, USMC (Commandant of the Marine Corps) noted in 1980
“Logistics is the stuff that if you don’t have enough of, the war will not be won as soon as.”
– General Nathaniel Green, Quartermaster, American Revolutionary Army
“There is nothing more common than to find considerations of supply affecting the strategic lines of a campaign and a war.”
– Carl von Clausevitz
“Leaders win through logistics. Vision, sure. Strategy, yes. But when you go to war, you need to have both toilet paper and bullets at the right place at the right time. In other words, you must win through superior logistics.”
– Tom Peters – Rule #3: Leadership Is Confusing As Hell, Fast Company, March 2001
“Logistics sets the campaign’s operational limits.”
– Joint Pub 1: Joint Warfare of the Armed Forces of the United States
“Logistics … as vital to military success as daily food is to daily work.”
– Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Armaments and Arbitration, 1912
My copy of Supply Lines is the boxed version that comes with a 12-page rulebook, a 22″x17″ map, 88 counters, 2 dice, and 100 wooden cubes. The game has only one scenario (campaign) beginning late 1775 and progressing to the end of 1777 with 5 turns each year. Armies are represented by generic leaders (few) and numbered chits that represent the size of the force with no relation to any real unit organization or echelon.
At the beginning of each turn supply is generated. Supplies come in two forms, Food (green cubes) and War Supplies (natural wooden cubes). Supply is only generated in cities that are occupied by armies. Once generated, supplies can be moved, but only if the “supply line” exists. When armies move they need Food (one cube per four armies or portion thereof). When armies fight, they gain “Battle Die” based on the number of War Supplies they expend. There are other rules which limit the amount of supplies that can be held in cities or that an army can carry with them.
In Supply Lines the Patriot player is trying to reach the Treaty of Alliance which represents the entry of France into the war. The Crown player is trying to take Victory Cities and deny the Patriot player from moving the Support Track his direction. This is where Supply Lines gets REALLY interesting, because in order to move the Support Track the Patriot player needs to win battles but for the Crown player to take Victory Cities he will need to win battles (moving the Support Track away from the Treaty of Alliance) which means calling call on reinforcements, which moves the Support Track in favor of the Patriot player. Of course, there is never enough Food to move ones armies, and it always seems to be the case that there is not enough War Supplies on hand when the battle is joined. Some battles can be big armies but few Battle Die because there are not enough War Supplies. In Supply Lines, battle favors the defender who often only has to expend a single War Supply for a Battle Die whereas the Attacker not only has to expend Food to move an army into battle but also two (2) War Supply for each Battle Die.
Thematically, I find Supply Lines evocative of the history published about the American War of Independence. The Patriots were always short of troops and trying to muster the militia (reinforcements in the game) while constantly fighting the specter of enlistments ending (seen here in a special Continental Army Disbands rule during Winter Turns). The Crown player either has to come overland from Canada or use his command of the sea to transport troops from port to port.
In my first game the campaign went poorly for the Patriots. Pushing out aggressively, they lost a few battles shifting the Support Track in a negative way. This gave the Crown player room to call for reinforcements while the Patriots had yet to reach the Declaration of Independence – and get more Patriot reinforcements. The Patriot player tried to hold New York City, but a large, well supplied amphibious force landed on Long Island, marched overland to the city, and after a pitched battle dislodged the Patriot defenders. From this point on the Patriots, unable to muster forces in the months of 1777, simply did not have enough force – not to mention War Supplies – to eject the Crown player from a Victory City.
Supply Lines’ focus on logistics highlights an important aspect of the American Revolution. Playing this game one gets a sense of the challenge George Washington faced in the dark days of 1777 – how to keep an Army together when you have little food, fewer war supplies, and expiring enlistments. The one blessing is that the Crown faced many of the same problems – not having enough supply at the point of battle.
The game mechanics of Supply Lines make this game worthy of replay even though there is only one campaign setup. In my first game, battles drained War Supplies at an incredible rate. But after a few combats I realized that, just like in history, it is not necessary to destroy the enemy simply to get them to retreat. In this game, retreating comes when the Defender is defeated (has less forces after the battle) AND fails a Morale Roll (where the Defender has to roll the force differential or more on a d6) which makes them retreat.
I personally have grown very fond of Supply Lines after just one play. Not only is it evocative of the American Revolution, in terms of mechanics it is yet another “simply complex” game – simple in game mechanics but complex in strategy. I also think my appreciation of Supply Lines shows my shift in wargaming tastes. More on that later, but suffice it to day for now that I enjoy exploring the different challenge Supply Lines tees up for the players.