casualties grand tactician
Casualties suffered after a battle fierce battle.

Grand Tactician: The Civil War (1861-1865) Early Access Review

Grand Tactician: The Civil War (1861-1865)

Grand Tactician is a game set in the US Civil War. It promises to be the ultimate strategy game covering the era. This real-time strategy game uses both tactical battles and grand strategy to cover the whole campaign from 1861 to 1865.

One could easily call this the most ambitious project so far. There is no shortage of games covering tactical battles or the grand strategy, but to combine both is something no game has managed to put together yet (something called the Civil War tried and failed 30 years ago).

Do remember that this is an early access review, and thus a lot of the mechanics and systems are still a work in the progress. Essentially, the game in beta stage right now. As such, we are looking at what the game delivers so far, and what it promises to deliver in the future.

Grand Tactician in a nutshell:

  • Control CSA or USA from 1861 to 1865.
  • Several campaign scenarios & historical battles.
  • Mould the political landscape, hope for or against European intervention.
  • Manage order of battles, commanders, battles, sieges and naval forces.
  • Take care of the economy, build railroads, trade and mobilize your industries.
  • All in real-time.

Make big decisions right from the start

Right now you can choose from four different campaigns, one of which is set before the hostilities open up in 1861, one at the start of the war, one for 1862 and one for 1863. There’s one more setup coming for 1864. No matter what year you start, you can choose some ahistorical options that can benefit or hinder both the Union and the Confederacy.

grant tacitician policies
Enforce slavery, support abolitionist, fortify forts and several other options can change the setting drastically.

These policies, of which you can choose up to three at the start, can change the way the war is setup. Some changes can be drastic if both sides go ahistorical, but mostly these are minor changes with a bit of southern support there, some more industries here.

The policies continue into the game and are the major tool for shaping up both the federal and the rebs. Different choices here lead to different directions, generally influencing politics, industrialisation, mobilization as well as diplomacy. Your choices are limited, and it won’t be possible to advance on all avenues at once.

Grand tactician policies
Government policies result in more options to fund and increase the army.

The policies further branch into acts, these are political decisions which cannot be cancelled, unlike the policies that lead to them.  Everything takes time to get in the right order, and if you’re feeling like it you can leave all of this for the AI to manage.

Taking care of the economy in Grand Tactician

You can’t control the economy directly. No building plantations, ironworks or logging camps here. As it should be. Grand Tactician instead concentrates on what the governments actually concentrate on: the big picture. Which is money.

economy grand tactician
Balance your budget, but don’t forget to make a surplus so you can actually raise an army.

The actually economy is simulated. The map is full of cities, industries and other points of interest. The driving factor behind all this is trade, which further ties into the way your armies are supplied. You can’t build industries, but funding transportation, industries and agriculture can lead to growth. And not giving enough funds means that damage done won’t be repaired, or that the economy simply won’t expand enough to allow for bigger armies. Tread carefully, or once again let the AI manage this.

grand tactician food production
Under the hood, you’ll find a complex system of production and trade.

Raiding enemy lands, destroying railroads and blocking ports all play a large role in making sure the enemy can’t fight the war as effectively as you can. Logistics play a very important role in the game.

Railroads, telegraphs, depots and forts are something that you can build, though at times it’s not the easiest to determine where and when you can build them. Railroads obviously help you with movement, but they also work to improve your transport capacities for the economy. Telegraphs make it easier to issue orders, whereas depots are a must for supplying your army in the advance.

Enter the big picture – Grand Tactician

When you open the game you are welcome to the map of the USA as it stood in 1861. There are several mapmodes to select here, showing frontlines, support, slave states and so forth. The most important function is to simply give you an overview of the map. This is where you’ll be leading the war from.

grand tactician grand map
Frontlines in 1861, before the war starts.

The map is entirely zoomable, and the view changes from a 19th-century map to a more digital production the smaller your area of interest is.

The same view brings you all the necessary buttons from speeding up the game to having a look at your economy, production, objectives, overall situation, armies, fleets and what have you. As it stands you do pretty much have to zoom in to give orders or do anything else, so there’s a bit of work to do here in order to show anything apart from the overall frontlines.

grand tactician closeup
Points of interest around Washington.

Time flows here a few minutes at a time, but luckily you can speed it up to 50x. You thus have ample time to make big and small decision alike, whilst not having to wait an eternity for your orders to be carried out. Especially useful in the early game, as you’ll have to wait for a bit for the war to actually start.

grand tactician recruitment
Can’t fight a war if you don’t first recruit your armies.

The most important function is recruiting your armies and fleets. This is actually quite easy, though perhaps a bit time consuming, at least for the first few weeks of war when you’re just building up your strength.

You can either create new armies or select existing ones. The order of battle then shows up, allowing you to easily move units (within the army) or create new sub-units. Units are divided into infantry and cavalry units, as well as artillery and horse artillery. If you have time to tinker around this system is perfect, but on the other hand some sort of function to raise maximum infantry brigades from the  90 000 volunteers in New York, for example, would be welcome too.

order of battle grand tactician
The Department of Ohio is being beefed up.

When it comes to ships the choices are manifold, making you wonder if simulating naval warfare is the main object of this game.  For the land units, you have a nice array of customisation options from uniforms to colours and guns. Something that is probably going to be expanded upon even further.

grand tactician ironclad
What to build? The choices are many, the ironclads obvious knowing history.

Move, damn it!

Here’s where we start to run into small problems. At least when it comes to interface. Clicking a unit and issuing orders is a bit too difficult in both the main map and in battles. For example, selecting your army and then right-clicking at an enemy city would be a pretty obvious movement order… Except that it isn’t. Same applies to armies and probably fleets too.

On the main map, you’re moving your army on the map, so right-clicking will move to a point on the map, with apparently no way to choose the map objects (cities, armies, ports, depots etc) as destinations. A few times I had armies march past each other and not engage in a fight, so it’s a bit hard to say how it all works…or if this is all just because of the early access situation…arguably it is, as a lot of improvement have already been patched into the game based on player feedback.

grand tactician army movemnet
I hope we’re moving in the same direction.

So, the interface is a bit tacky. Something to work on. How do things work otherwise?

On the campaign map, I find it difficult to determine what the navies do, or what they should do. Just as well, I am not much of a naval enthusiasts myself.

day 2 battle grand tactician
On the second day of the battle, the Feds are gonna get an even worse beating.

The armies, on the other hand, are far easier to manage. Just point them at a direction, and get them going. There’s a small delay in orders, depending on several factors, after which the units start moving. It will take a bit of gaming before I will understand how logistics affect all of this, and how to improve them. So far I’ve done quite well by just making sure I am not doing any deep raids behind enemy lines. Cities seem to be captured by just being near them, and battles happening when armies are near each other…

Ready to fight it out on the field of battle

The first battle that I played is what we call a major clusterfuck. At first, I blamed the interface…and while there are a lot of things to improve there, those are mainly quality of life issues.

grand tactician battle
What’s going on here? Who’s to say, let’s just hope they sort it out.

The fault was in me.

This is a real-time strategy game, but that doesn’t mean this is Starcraft. One major factor is order delays. When you issue an order, it takes some time until the unit executes the order, or even receives it. Clicking here and there will only confuse the unit, and you, issuing multiple orders.

grand tactician cannon fire
The graphics are on low because my computer sucks. Still, the rebs are getting outflanked.

This adds a level of complexity, as you need to actually choose what you do, instead of just marching blindly into the enemy army. You can also let the AI take control of some of your units, but in my experience, this causes even more problems…though it is a useful function in some situations.

grand tactician battle
Look at that, all sorted and ready to crush the rebs.

A few battles later, and the situation was much easier to judge, and orders and troop placement easier to execute. Generally, you select your divisions, or corps if you are moving behind your own lines, and line them up at your chosen position. They will then move there and ready for battle. Quite simple.

Where there’s need for some improvements on the interface is when the fighting starts. Technically, right-clicking should again have your chosen unit advance to attack, which it sometimes does. But sometimes there’s a delay, with no clear indication of it. Same applies to charging. All that’s needed here are some simple indicators which actually show what’s happening.

Same applies to the AI stances. You can set the AI commanders to execute your orders in certain manners, but nowhere on the interface can you actually see what stance they are set to…or who the unit is targeting. Otherwise, there’s more than enough information going on, of which some requires a bit of sorting to be useful.

Also, please add a “cancel orders”-button. Even if it does make the general in charge seem like a drunken idiot.

The battles themselves are quite straightforward. The two sides square it up on a ready-made map, with certain objectives laid out. Though going for the objectives is a goal, most battles are actually decided by routing the enemy army.

battle results grand tactician
Winning a battle decreases enemy morale, and adds experience to our troops.

Graphically units are presented as either red or blue boxes (which could use a little less transparency) on the zoomed-out view, or as sprites when zoomed in. Both work quite well, especially once the battle really starts going.

What can the units do? A lot. Attack, defend, charge, retreat, double march. Pretty much everything you want and need them to do, including building field fortifications. Giving an order means sending a courier with an order to the unit, which is graphically represented on the map. The unit will then follow that order to the best of its abilities, which in the confusion of the battle won’t always amount to much.

There’s more to the system than this, with a possibility of sieges, naval battles, multi-day battles and logistics all counted in. Once the battles are won or lost, you return to the campaign map to continue the war.


Conclusion – should you get the game?

If you’re a grognard or a civil war enthusiast, we strongly suggest you jump in with the early access title. The game is already functional, even if you’ll still run into the occasional bug or a feature that is not a 100% complete. What’s there is playable, and if you’re really into it the developers seem to be listening to their customers.

If you’re into strategy games in general, wait until the game is finished and then get it…there simply isn’t another game that would offer the same era in the same detail.