The introduction to David Hackett Fischer’s book Washington’s Crossing is simply titled “The Painting.” In the intro, Fischer describes the power of the famous painting of General George Washington crossing the Delaware River enroute to his raid on the Hessians at Trenton. The same picture is used on the cover of Washington’s Crossing: A Game of the Winter Campaign of 1776-1777 (Revolution Games, 2012). When I played my first game, I too recreated the famous raid; indeed, it took all of two turns to cross the river and raid Trenton. This left me off-guard because there were 40+ more turns to go before the end of the game. “What do I do now?” I asked.
“What do I do now?” The same question that George Washington pondered after Trenton.
Part of my answer is in the subtitle on the box – “A Game of the Winter Campaign of 1776-1777.” Although the famous river crossing will happen (sometime, somewhere) and the Battle of Trenton is bound to happen, Washington’s Crossing – the wargame – looks at the larger two-week campaign of which the Battle of Trenton was just one part. In this wargame version of Washington’s Crossing you fight the campaign, not just a single battle. Along the way, Washington’s Crossing delivers valuable insight into the role of leaders in these eighteenth century armies – one professional and another of commoners struggling to achieve independence.
The Designers Notes of Washington’s Crossing tells me the game system is mechanically derived from previous designs of Kevin Zucker and his operational Napoleonic games and Joseph Balkowski and his operational-level American Civil War games. I don’t own any of the games mentioned, so I had no pre-set expectation coming into Washington’s Crossing. When I first set up the game I got very worried – every leader has an off-map track where the number of troops in their command is tracked. General Mercer? Seven-hundred fifty troops with a “100” marker in the 7-spot and a “10” marker in the 5-spot. General Rall at Trenton? He has a “1000” in the 1-spot, a “100” in the 2-spot, and a “10” in the 5-spot. Oh yeah, don’t forget to add that Fatigue Marker in the 2-spot! This game was quickly looking to be an exercise in accounting, not a “warGAME.”
Stepping through the Sequence of Play in Washington’s Crossing also seemed a constant look-up exercise. Roll for Weather. Roll for Raids. Track your Activations and roll for movement (and if crossing a Ferry roll again) and don’t forget to track your Fatigue. Roll for Reaction Movement. Combat is a roll for Surprise and then a roll for the combat results. Now you need do do some math for losses are expressed as percentages. Move those troop track markers!
Then, in the middle of the game, the enlistments in the American Army end. On the first turn of January 1st the American army must reorganize. Some leaders may totally disappear. It’s another accounting exercise!
All this accounting and die rolling in Washington’s Crossing makes the game – a piece of art.
This is a winter campaign; the weather can be fickle. It was for George Washington:
Once the men began to move, moreover, unforeseen delays occurred, mostly due to weather. It had been cold and clear throughout Christmas day, but around sunset, just as the American forces were setting out, the temperature rose and, paradoxically, conditions quickly fell apart. It began to rain. Hail followed. Snow came next, driven by keening winds that one soldier equated with “a perfect hurricane.” Either a nor’easter or an arctic front had struck – John Ferling, Almost a Miracle, p. 176.
Troops in Washington’s Crossing don’t act on their own; they need a leader. Leaders in turn must be inspired. Washington’s Crossing depends heavily on a “chain of command.” Command Leaders, like George Washington, have a Command Span and can activate other leaders. Using your Activation Points and ensuring your subordinate leaders are within the Command Span of a Command Leader is important if you want to move or fight. Indeed, it is the real key to the game. Even if you can get them to move, they may step lively – or not.
The second key mechanic in Washington’s Crossing is Fatigue. Troops move, they get Fatigue. Troops fight, they get Fatigue. The only way to reduce Fatigue is not fight and not move – each night.
Putting all this together is the art of war – Washington’s Crossing style. Best of all, it’s laid out in the Players Notes:
The keys to playing Washington’s Crossing are the proper use of Activation Points, the management of fatigue, and the use of maneuver to force the enemy to fight on unfavorable terms. On offense you need to make a plan, save some activation points and make sure your troops are well rested before jumping off. If a major victory is possible push your leaders to the maximum fatigue and spend activation points freely. On the other hand if part way through it is clear the plan is going to fail break it off and save fatigue and activation points. On the defense choose your ground and try to move your troops as little as possible. Wait for your opponent to spend most of his activation points and become fatigued and then launch your counterattack. On both offense and defense a firm concept of what your maneuver is trying to accomplish is vital. If you play this system by moving your leaders every turn you will constantly be fatigued and short of activation points and will be unlikely to accomplish anything decisive.
Having just leaders in the map in Washington’s Crossing gives the game a very realistic feel. Intelligence (Set Up) tells me how many troops they started with, but how many do they have now? You might think you know, but you don’t really know until you commit.
As scary as all the tracks and markers may look like, the game mechanics of Washington’s Crossing actually play rather quickly. Indeed, the accounting exercise portion of the game quickly fades to the background as the core mechanics of Activations and Fatigue come to dominate your thinking and planning. Good Player Aids help here, especially the Washington’s Crossing % Loss Table that makes converting those percentage losses into whole numbers quick and easy – no calculator required!
If I have any complaint about Washington’s Crossing it is the map and counters. Like I already stated, this was a winter campaign. The Painting and other artwork of the period show a cold, white winter. Yet the map in Washington’s Crossing looks like early Fall with many warm earth tones. The counters in Washington’s Crossing are also small 1/2″ size; a challenge to this bifocal-wearing Grognard to read from a distance. That said, these complaints are minor and in the end it all works on the table.
When unboxing and setting up Washington’s Crossing I expected a game delivering to me the Battle of Trenton. In reality, Washington’s Crossing is so much more. It is a look at a short campaign in an era of warfare where what and when leaders act and the condition of your troops must be carefully managed as you maneuver across a wide battlespace.
It’s a shame that designer Roger Miller has yet to add any further volumes to this series. That said, in many ways Washington’s Crossing pairs well with a more recent game, Campaigns of 1777 (Strategy & Tactics Nr. 316, 2019) by Harold Buchanan, that covers the campaign around the Battle of Saratoga. Both games are similar in that they cover a campaign but each approaches it a bit differently. Regardless, Washington’s Crossing delivers a solid game system that can be foundation exploring many other campaigns of the American Revolution.