Turn-based historical wargames have always occupied a special niche in PC gaming history, but they're not known for their accessibility. Birth of America attempts to bridge that gap somewhat by focusing squarely on combat and eliminating much of the micromanagement that accompanies most wargames. It also takes place on a handsome hand-drawn map that painstakingly re-creates the geographical landscape of colonial America. Yet the game still suffers from the traditional drawbacks of the genre: meager production values and a steep learning curve that limits the enjoyment to veteran armchair generals.
Experienced grognards still have close to 30 years of history to play with that include struggles from both the American Revolution and the French and Indian War. The four full campaigns included are long and deep, and they incorporate the British, Americans, French, and American Indians in a variety of challenging scenarios. If you're not inclined to play a hundred turns, you can pick a small subscenario that can take as few as four turns to complete.
There's a minimal amount of economic and construction worry in Birth of America, tied mainly to your supply wagons, depots, and forts. In fact, the entire concept of supply lines common to most wargames is eliminated; here, supplies are delivered by wagons and generated by civilized regions. Depots and forts also grant supplies, while forts have the additional advantage of barricading rivers and harboring troops. However, the bulk of gameplay focuses on troop movement and battle, which is further emphasized by Birth of America's simultaneous turn-based structure. In a traditional turn-based wargame, each player takes his turn after the other is complete. Here, once you click the end turn button, both players' turns take place simultaneously. The system isn't typical, but it lends a welcome degree of chaos and suits the revolutionary setting.
If one historical anecdote jumps to mind when playing Birth of America, it's that of George Washington and his troops suffering in Valley Forge during the cruel winter of 1777-78. Terrain and weather have a huge effect on troop behavior and movement, resulting in a good deal of attrition in wild and snow-covered areas. You can manage troop movement across multiple turns, however, even with multiple movements within a single turn. Thus, you're not stuck crossing mountains and rivers unless it falls within your plan or is completely unavoidable. On the other hand, though mountains will slow down your troops, they'll also offer hide bonuses, which are always good for an ambush, assuming you have units stealthy enough.
In combination with an unforgiving fog of war, the terrain and weather offer the artificial intelligence plenty of chances to exploit your weaknesses. Fortunately, you've got some highly qualified leaders at your disposal, like George Washington himself. Each leader unit provides specific bonuses to the troops he leads, so it's never a good idea to send out leaderless units. Yet as great as some of these bonuses are, such as movement speed and special defensive and offensive capabilities, your leaders may ignore your orders. Every leader has a strategic rating, and the lower the rating, the less capable he is of following your commands.
Scenarios are well-balanced for the most part, although some heavily favor one faction to the point of absurdity. Even the scenario description can't prepare you for the 1775 Canada Invasion, for instance, which is almost impossible if you play as the Americans. Like most of Birth of America, the imbalance is historically accurate and a test of the elite wargamer's resolve, but it also limits the level of enjoyment for more casual players. The 1755 campaign is equally rough if you play as Great Britain, since the French have a huge upper hand in the first two years.
Commanding is fairly easy using the drag-and-drop interface, and the heads-up display is unfussy and simple to use. Yet it's not always easy to digest the information once it's all spelled out in the results list. You can click on those results, which takes you to the region in question, but it doesn't highlight the unit in question. This wouldn't necessarily be an issue if the in-game text weren't so tiny. You can zoom in to a reasonably close view, but even at medium distance, city names and unit playing pieces are insufferably small, while visual cues like unit stances are almost impossible to see. There's also the issue of the large interface element in the upper left corner. Aside from showcasing a pretty banner that represents the terrain and weather of the highlighted region, it simply takes up space. The actual game map and region details offer the necessary information without needing the additional clutter.
Yet for all the attempts at a kinder, gentler wargame, Ageod doesn't go the distance needed to bring new players into the fold. The design is more compact than the standard wargame, but there's still a lot of information to sort through. The in-game tutorial is essentially useless, telling you how to move units and leaving everything else to the 28-page manual and the unit descriptions on the game CD. Yet enough has been streamlined that experienced wargamers may feel that something is missing, whether it be diplomacy options, supply-line tactics, or more building options.
Birth of America also lacks flavor, which extends from the bland box art to the dreary in-game menus. The game map itself features some lovely hand-drawn artwork, but it isn't very colorful, so the visual appeal is limited. It also hitches as you scroll across, which is unusual, since the 2D engine shouldn't be taxing to a modern PC. The audio design suffers from a bare-bones MIDI soundtrack that repeats the same tune so much, you will eventually turn it off completely. And unlike the scenarios, the tune isn't even very authentic, bringing to mind the bombast of current military films more than anything distinctly American. The sound effects are the run-of-the-mill marching sounds and other tidbits you've heard in most other turn-based military titles.
If you're so inclined, you can copy a bunch of files and e-mail them to someone else, who can then drop them into a folder, take his turn, and e-mail them back. It's hardly a user-friendly way to have a multiplayer game, but then again, Ageod made only a handful of concessions in what is essentially just another hardcore military wargame made for genre enthusiasts. Birth of America has all the necessary elements working under its hood, including a terrific implementation of weather and terrain and a hearty AI that keeps you on your toes. Yet the attempts to appeal to the masses feel meager, and the game loses some of its identity as a result.