Review: Gary Grigsby’s War Between The States (PC)

Gary Grigsby’s War Between The States (PC)
Genre: Strategy/War Simulation
Developer: 2 By 3 Games
Publisher: Matrix Games
Release Date: June 11, 2008

The Civil War is perhaps the most unique war the United States has ever been involved in. Not only is it the only war that pitted America against America, but it’s the only war where both sides claim victory. Depending on where you grew up, you heard one version of what happened, usually with a slant toward your geographic region. However, since we’re talking about a war that took place nearly 150 years ago, nobody will ever know what really happened.

That’s where Gary Grigsby comes in. His latest game, War Between The States, allows players to create their own version of the Civil War by controlling either the Union, the Confederacy, or even both of them. If you’re a Civil War buff – or even if you just have an appreciation for United States history – this is a pretty interesting premise. The big question is, though, how does it translate to a game? Let’s find out.

War Between The States lets a player jump into the Civil War at the outset (1861), the middle (1863), or the end (1865). While the year doesn’t make that big a difference as far as gameplay goes, it’s nice to have the option of starting from any juncture you’d like. Aside from choosing the side(s) you wish to control, you can also elect to control either the military operations or the production of goods. Just like with your choice of allegiance, you’re given the option of doing both if you so desire. But the options don’t matter as much as the gameplay, which always makes or breaks strategy games.

How in-depth is the gameplay in War Between The States? Let’s put it this way – the instruction manual is 184 pages long. Now, I know what you’re thinking. If the manual is 184 pages long, how on Earth do you even begin to approach this game? It’s simple. War Between The States lets you play this game any way you want to play it. If you like doing crazy things like creating infantry units and appointing generals and so on and so forth, that’s your option. If you just feel like playing Risk and moving people into battle positions, you can do that too. The game plays just as well either way. You might feel like you’re missing out on some stuff by taking the basic approach, but let’s face it, not everyone is going to like everything about any game. That you’re given the option to play this game as you desire is one of its best features.

That said, the game does have a learning curve. If you were to boot up the game, click one of the scenarios, and dive right in, you’d be lost. Outside of the 184-page instruction manual, the game features video tutorials as well as interactive tutorials. They’re meant to be used, and they should be. It pays to put in a little time early on to learn what to do and why it’s done. The tutorials do a really good job of making a daunting task seem easier; however, when it’s time to play for real, it’s hard to remember everything you learned. A lot of this game’s learning process is trial and error; for the player who’s used to picking up a game and playing it, that’s tough to take.

At its core, the game is a turn-based strategy game; you move your soldiers into positions that are favorable, watch your opponent do the same, and then do battle. That’s all well and good, but if you’re facing off against the computer, this can be quite an ordeal. The computer’s movements take forever, sometimes over five minutes, and you can’t skip past any of it. It’s very frustrating and can totally kill your desire to play the game, especially if you’re used to fast-paced gameplay. This is one of those little things that does a lot to diminish the many things that this game does well.

The game offers you a lot of different options, all of which enhance its replay value. Aside from your option to pick one or both sides, and start from different years, there’s a lot to do here. You can learn some of the finer points of the game and try out your skills against another player either on the same computer or via e-mail (sadly, the seemingly obvious online play option isn’t available). While the game is one that doesn’t have to take a long time to play, it’s clear how it can last for a while if you want it to.

For most players, though, the most fun thing will be to play around with the soldiers and see if they can change history. If you ever wondered how a certain battle would have played out if something different happened, you can play that right out. It’s also very interesting to see the fall-out from the decisions you make. The game provides detailed reports about the states and how your actions affect them. So, while your ultimate goal is to defeat the other side, you can also see little things improve in the individual states along the way.

In terms of the game’s presentation, War Between The States features graphics that can be best described as tasteful. They’re nothing to write home about, but they’re sharp and good. Everything is clear and detailed, leaving you impressed, if not overwhelmed. The maps are highly accurate and are not diminished when the player zooms in. The soldier models are solid, though it can occasionally be tough to determine which soldier belongs to which army.

The main issue with the graphics is the roll-over menu system the game employs. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s particularly a curse if you’re playing on a laptop without a mouse, as menus pop up and disappear before you can utilize them. However, aside from this inconvenience, the menus are a great help. The aforementioned issues with figuring out which side a soldier is on can easily be rectified by simply rolling over a soldier.

Perhaps the thing I liked best about the graphics is the absence of gratuitous CGI and full-motion video. It’s not necessary, and it’s not included. This is a strategy game, not a graphical masterpiece. Kudos to 2 By 3 Games for keeping the frivolous stuff to an absolute minimum.

Just like with the graphics, War Between The States sticks with the basics in terms of sound. There’s not much here, but what’s here is well-done. The music played during the opening menus and during turns of battle feature a military feel and really get you in the frame of mind for war. As the players move, some familiar war tunes can be heard. It’s nothing special, but it’s not supposed to be, and the less-is-more approach works here.

That said, the main question about this game is yet to be answered. Is the game fun?

For all of the great things about this game – the ability to play as both sides, the ability to either go in-depth or keep it simple, etc. – it isn’t all that much fun to play. In the amount of time you’ll spend waiting for the computer to make their moves, you could play another game on a DS or PSP. Besides, for those who are looking to play Risk in the Civil War era, the fun of trash-talking and inter-personal contact is gone. Instead, it’s just you against the computer (or yourself), which can get kind of old pretty fast.

This game would have benefited greatly from a true online mode. The option to play via e-mail is a good one, as it allows players to play at their own pace, but putting this game in a head-to-head, real-time environment would push it up another notch. While some might want time to plot their moves and set things up as they’d like, the absence of true combat with another person hurts this game. As great as it is to experiment with history, gaming has always been better with multiple players, and this game would have been much better with such an option.

Although casual players might tire of it quickly, War Between The States does not apologize for what it is – a strategy-based war simulation that lets players get as in-depth as they could possibly imagine. The players who play these games are the target audience, as it should be. It might not be the biggest market in the world, but it’s a loyal one and it’s one that’s loyal to the Gary Grigsby series of games. Casual gamers might look the other way at a game such as this one, but there’s something in this game for most players to be at least somewhat satisfied. It’s a shame most people won’t give this one a second thought.

For those who are willing to dig a little deeper, though, they’ll be impressed. The Civil War is one of the most famous happenings in American history. It’s a topic that has been made into movies, books, paintings, and video games. However, the elimination of the typical “good vs. evil” premise we see in most war games is an appealing twist. It makes it possible for gamers to not only play the game for the sake of beating it, but also to try different things and really get into the mindset of the 1860s. The ability to take a video game and, in a sense, turn it into a historical document is something we haven’t seen much of. Perhaps this is the greatest attribute of War Between The States.

Also, while there was a lot of attention paid to the details of the graphics and sound, the one thing that they really nailed was the one thing you might not expect. As you play this game, you will encounter generals, soldiers, and various military people. Each of them has a name. Guess what? These names aren’t just the made-up names you’d see in a sports game when the developer is too cheap to pay for the real ones. This is the real deal – how cool is that? They could have just put fake names in here and very few people would have cared, but the extra effort is more than appreciated. It just adds to the feel of the game. Rather than just simulating the Civil War, it’s clear that War Between The States does everything possible to actually put you in the war. Now that’s some in-depth stuff.

Ultimately, all that extra stuff will be lost on the casual gamers who don’t play games in this genre. Those who do will find themselves in heaven with all of the crazy things they can do. It’s not exactly The Oregon Trail in the way it lets the player experiment with history, but War Between The States lets players enjoy the game as much or as little as they’d like – and maybe even learn something in the process.

STORY/MODES: Above Average
GRAPHICS: Mediocre
SOUND: Above Average
BALANCE: Mediocre


Gary Grigsby’s War Between The States is a good game. It lets you play at your own pace and whatever skill level you desire. However, fun is lost somewhere in the mix. Without the ability to play online, it’s mostly player vs. computer, something that can’t be sustained over a long period of time. While the game serves a great purpose as a way to play around with history, it isn’t going to do a lot for many gamers. A good game, sure, but it won’t make you forget about the GTA4 you have sitting in your X-Box 360 or PS3.



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2 responses to “Review: Gary Grigsby’s War Between The States (PC)”

  1. […] Read the rest of this great post here […]

  2. […] Review: Gary Grigsby’s War Between The States (PC)It’s not exactly The Oregon Trail in the way it lets the player experiment with history, but War Between The States lets players enjoy the game as much or as little as they’d like – and maybe even learn something in the process. … […]

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