The Blue & The Gray

Heading off the spate of Civil War games expected in the very near future is Impressionsí The Blue and The Grey (B&G).  This game sports a remarkably intuitive interface and an impressive amount of detail.  It also presents Impressionsí long-anticipated and much-heralded Micro Miniatures' battle system.

B&G is surprisingly attractive for a wargame.  Combined with a number of 'bells & whistles,' this reveals the amount of energy that went into its creation.  For example, at appropriate times between turns a screen will appear detailing important events of the real Civil War.  A surprisingly entertaining and well-written reference book is also included.  While these may not interest the average person, Civil War buffs will find them a nice touch . . . and these interludes may be turned off or flipped through in sequence.  (The controls for doing so are found on the menu in the Recruitment screen).

Likewise, the documentation is excellent.  It includes the aforementioned volume recounting the history of the war, the Micro Miniatures' Battle Manual (detailing the tactical game), the Technical Supplement and Tutorial (which contains a useful walk-through), the Campaign Manual (covering the strategy game) and a quick reference card to the gameís controls.  All are well-written and readable, although the number of pages involved warrants an index.

B&G offers detailed gameplay at both the strategic and tactical levels. Strategically, it allows for realistic management of manpower, with three different troop types (infantry, cavalry and artillery) and two types of transport (trains and ships).  Different troops have different strengths and weaknesses, and naturally will appear in different proportions.  (For example, you will always have many more infantry available than cavalry.)  Supply line and visibility ('Fog of War') options allow the player a measure of control over the level of realism of gameplay.

At the tactical level, B&G permits an impressive degree of control over oneís army.  Pieces can be moved all together, in groups (which can be defined by the player) and individually.  Such a fine level of control is possible, for example, that one can send out a single piece to draw enemy forces into a trap, or direct a cavalry group to harry the enemyís flanks or rear.

The big problem with the tactical side of the game, however, is speed.  The box boasts of 'up to 200 animated figures per battle, with stunning high-res graphics.'  While this is not entirely hype, it doesnít mention that battles run every bit as slowly as youíd expect with this much going on.  Even with Windows banished from memory and the detail level set to Low, B&G ran so slowly on my 486-33 with 8 MB of RAM that big battles would have taken literally hours to run, had I been willing to let them.  The good news is that B&G features an Autoplay option which resolves battles algorithmically.  The bad news:  Iím none too fond of the algorithm.  I have several times engaged in battles where my opponent was vastly outnumber (5:1, in one case!) and not only lost but suffered far greater losses than my opponent.  To be fair, I have lost Micro Miniatures' battles despite massively outnumbering my opponent.  I attribute this to the fact that I am a poor tactician, and that while a great deal hinges upon a pieceís morale, no morale bonus is given for such factors as relative size of forces or defending a piece of home ground.

(As an interesting aside, however, I ran the game on my machine from the server in my office (a 486-66 with 16 MB) across a peer-to-peer network under Workgroups for Windows.  The game was rock solid, and even got a noticeable boost in speed.  Iíve had top-quality productivity apps crap out under less trying conditions).

Unfortunately, although the interface is very intuitive, it is easy to get mired down in the many minute details of the game.  While learning to play B&G, you will likely learn the nastier rules (such as having an entire unit rout if your retreat is blocked by a body of water) when the computer uses them against you!  This, combined with the performance factor, is likely to scare many people away from what is otherwise a decent game.  I hope Impressions continues to improve its Micro Miniatures' technology, as I think it could be very entertaining if it were quicker.

B&G took up about 2.5 MB on my hard drive and ran even with Windows running in the background, although a README file recommended at least 545K (560K with sound) of conventional memory.  The sticker on the box suggests that B&G can run on a 386-16 or better.  I would not advise playing this game on anything less than a 486, however, and if you can get your hands on a Pentium . . .