LIKE MANY HISTORIANS, I FIND THE CAMPAIGNS OF 1777 in the American Revolution fascinating. On one hand you have the great American victory at the Battle of Saratoga, and on the other hand you have American defeats at Brandywine, Paoli, and Germantown and the loss of the capital, Philadelphia. Philadelphia 1777 (Worthington Publishing, 2020) focuses on the defense of Philadelphia, starting with the British landed at Head of Elk, Maryland and marching forth. Philadelphia 1777 is a low complexity wargame that captures the essence of the campaign that is easy to learn and fun to play while retaining sufficient historical flavor to provide insight into the decisions Generals Washington and Howe faced during this short month-long campaign. Philadelphia 1777 is Volume 4 in the Worthington Publishing Campaigns of the American Revolution Series. This is my first title in the series and my introduction to the rules.
‘Squarely’ a Wargame
Worthington Publishing in one of the leading publishers to use blocks for their wargames, and Philadelphia 1777 is yet the latest in a string of block games. There are four different types of units represented by the blocks; Leaders, Regular Infantry, Artillery, and American Militia Infantry. Like most block games, you must apply the sticker to the blocks before your first play. In the cases of infantry and artillery the blocks are rotated as they absorb hits to ‘count down’ remaining Strength Points (SP).
The square map in Philadelphia 1777 depicts those portions of the mid-Atlantic colonies of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey over which the campaign was fought. The game uses point-to-point movement along roads with points often being those key crossroads or towns that acted as natural stopping points. Rivers and creeks, like Brandywine, are also identified and can become a key factor in movement and battles. The map also has several convenient holding boxes for you larger armies as well as the turn track, Action Point (AP) track, and a Weather track. There is also a separate 8.5″x11″ Battle Board.
Between the simple blocks and somewhat bland map, the table presence of Philadelphia 1777 appears a bit subdued. While the components don’t scream with bling, they are far more than functional; the blocks are wide enough not to easily fall over and the roads and points on the map are easy to see with those rivers and creeks being obvious too. In other words, the components deliver the information they need to and don’t get in the way of play.
History as a Wargame
I was fortunate enough that as Philadelphia 1777 arrived I was reading John Ferling’s Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (Oxford UP, 2007). Chapter 8 “Choices, 1777” and chapter 10 “‘We Rallied and Broke’ – The Campaign for Philadelphia, September – December 1777” provide excellent background and a short, comprehensive narrative of the campaign as it unfolded. It is quite possible to use Philadelphia 1777 as a sand table to set up and follow the campaign. More importantly, it allows you to play out alternatives.
While Howe had his choice of where to land his British and Hessian force, Philadelphia 1777 starts with the historical landing at Head of Elk, Maryland. America forces are initially arrayed pretty much as they were in late August 1777 with Washington around Pawlett, PA, Sterling around Concord, PA, Greene near Wilmington, DE and Sullivan in Philadelphia. American state militia (ten units) are also present on the map with no more than one per location.
Action Point Action
Like many Worthington Publishing games, in Philadelphia 1777 both sides gain Action Points (AP) every turn to show the friction of war. Every turn (there are 20 in the game) starts with both sides determining how many AP they have. Both start with 2 AP and can gain as many as three more for the turn. Moving a unit requires the expenditure of an AP. Leaders have a group limit rating which is the number of units that can move with that leader. Obviously, with the few AP on hand each turn, Leaders become important to the maneuver of forces across the map.
As already mentioned, Philadelphia 1777 uses a point-to-point map. Movement rules are quite simple with individual Regular Infantry and Artillery possessing one Movement Point (MP) per turn. Individual American Militia Infantry possess 2 MP, and Leaders have MP depending on who they are (usually 1 MP with a few having 2 MP). There is no limit to how many SP of troops can move along a road unless you cross a river when attacking where only 10 SP can cross in a turn. Units crossing a river must also stop at the next location even if they have MP remaining.
Every turn there is a 1 in 6 chance of poor weather. Poor weather reduces movement.
Combat in Philadelphia 1777 is insanely simple. When the active player moves into a location with enemy blocks a mandatory battle occurs. Battles take one of three forms:
- Over Run: If three or more attacking units battle in a location with less than three defenders, the battle is an Over Run. All defending units lose 1 SP and must retreat. The attacker can continue movement if they have any remaining.
- Skirmish: If the attacker has less than three units, then a Skirmish is fought. Using the Battle Board, all units are placed in the Center battlefield portion. American Militia unit that are forced to flee move to the Reserve but cannot renter the battle (more on flee later).
- Larger Battles: In battles with three or more units on both sides are involved, then all locations (Left, Right, Center, and Reserve) on the Battle Board are used.
When fighting, a unit rolls a number of d6 equal to its current strength. Infantry (and Leaders) hit on a roll of 6; artillery hits on a roll of 5 or 6. The only time a block rolls less than its SP is when attacking across a river or against a fort when the unit rolls one die less than it’s SP for the first round. Additionally, anytime a British or Hessian unit rolls a 1 against an American Militia Infantry, the militia unit flees the battle. The militia unit is placed into the Reserve but cannot rejoin the battle.
Battles are fought until one player decides to voluntarily retreat, is forced to retreat, or is eliminated. In every round of combat, a unit can attack or move to a different location on the Battle Board.
If one side want to voluntarily retreat they remove all forces from the Battle Board and the non-retreating side gets one die roll for each infantry unit on the battlefield (not in the Reserve) as one last attack against the rearguards.
If one section of the Battle Board (Left, Right, or Center) is unoccupied then that side is forced to retreat. However, in the case of an involuntary retreat, all non-retreating infantry in battlefield positions get a final attack using their current SP.
Low Complexity but Deep Teach
Taken as a whole, the few movement and combat rules in Philadelphia 1777, while simple, are quite illustrative of warfare in the American Revolution. Rivers and creeks, as natural barriers, were prominent factors in battle locations. The Battle of Brandywine, part of the Philadelphia campaign, is a great example.
The special militia rules in Philadelphia 1777 are also highly illustrative. While militia start with less firepower than regulars, they have the advantage of greater mobility. In combat they tend to be fragile units and just as easily run away as they stand. Indeed, even with the regular combat rules one quickly discovers that staying in the battle until the bitter end is not worth the cost; better to run away when you can and fight another day.
Philadelphia 1777 also uses a set of simple supply rules. British and Hessian units must be able to trace a supply path free of enemy units to a port location. American units must be able to trace a supply path to any of four towns along their board edge. Units not in supply must take a Supply Reduction where each unit is reduced 1 SP up to a maximum of 10 SP for the turn.
Victory in Philadelphia
Winning in Philadelphia 1777 is straight forward. The British win if they occupy Philadelphia for two consecutive turns while in supply. Since British supply must be traced to any port location on the map, in effect this means the British must not only hold Philadelphia but also create a supply line to the city or seize Fort Mifflin on the Delaware River. The British also win if the American army drops below 20 SP (they start with around 60 (~40 Regular and ~20 Militia). On the other hand, the Americans win if they prevent the seizure of Philadelphia at the end of 20 turns or reduce the British/Hessian force to less than 25 SP (they start with ~85 SP).
Like history, it is difficult for the Americans to win in Philadelphia 1777. Not impossible, but difficult. Like Washington, the American player has a numerically inferior army with a large, sometimes undependable, militia element. Like Washington, they must slow down and wear down the British while not losing too many of their own force. The British, on the other hand again, must not lose focus of their objective and strike hard for Philadelphia while maintaining a supply line against those pesky militia and avoid being overwhelmed in any single battle against regulars.
Philadelphia 1777 is my first introduction to the Campaigns of the American Revolution Series and I like what I see. This low-complexity wargame covers a difficult campaign and is playable is two hours or less. Perfect for boardgame night. I see that I can get the first three volumes (New York 1776, Trenton 1776, and Saratoga 1777) at a nice discount….
Feature image courtesy Worthington Publishing