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Battleground: Shiloh

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By Talonsoft
Battleground: Shiloh is the fourth in Talonsoft's Battleground series. Like my favorite game of the series, Gettysburg, Shiloh returns us to the American Civil War. This time it's to the Western theater of operations, as you take control of Grant's Union forces or Albert Sidney Johnston's Confederates. And like Grant and Johnston, you'll have to deal with the problematic-at-best conditions that beset both armies.

If you play the Union, you'll have to contend with a surprise attack that quite literally catches your army with its pants down, a tense early game that finds you attempting to establish a defensive line while reinforcements dribble in at a painfully slow rate, and an extended battle of attrition with your back up against the Tennessee River. If you're the playing the rebels, you'll find that deploying for your surprise attack requires the skills of an LA traffic cop. Following up on your initial successes is no picnic, either, since the terrible river-bottom terrain you must traverse to get at the Yankees leaves you mucking around in the swamps while the Union line grows ever stronger. You'll also find your units almost hopelessly intermixed, leading to difficult decisions - do you sacrifice command and control for a chance to hit the Northern line before it stabilizes? In other words, with Shiloh, Talonsoft's Battleground series, again, does a first-rate job of putting you in the place of the great and not-so-great commanders.

You can play the entire two-day battle or game individual scenarios. The scenarios include the surprise attack on Sherman and the desperate battle around the Hornets Nest, and both of them are fairly short and riveting. Several "what if?" scenarios allow the gamer to fudge history. As a bonus, the game includes two smaller Western theater battles, Wilson's Creek and Prairie Grove.

As usual with Talonsoft games, there were no technical problems loading or during play. These guys make clean products.

The Look:
Nobody does wargame graphics like Talonsoft, and again the 3D Battleview gives one the impression that you're playing a miniatures game. One caveat: the Battleview doesn't focus down as far as it did in BG: Waterloo, so if you're expecting the sort of flashy uniform definition that made  that game such a visual treat, you'll be a bit disappointed. On the other hand, the terrain looks stunning and you do get gunboats. The Shiloh battlefield was made up of just about the worst terrain imaginable - almost entirely heavily wooded, with lots of ravines and streams and swamps cutting through it. As a result, Shiloh boardgames often have very "busy" and unattractive maps, and playing it in miniature can be a real trial. Talonsoft's map achieves just the right "look" - you're aware of the nastiness of the terrain, but not overwhelmed by it. And the sound is great. Talonsoft has always been a leader in sound, but the tunes that accompany Shiloh are incredible - in fact, they were recorded by Bobby Horton, whose songs appear on the incomparable Ken Burns Civil War soundtrack. It's this kind of bonus that makes Talonsoft games such a treat to play.

Well, the game's mechanics are a lot like Gettysburg's, which I enjoyed thoroughly. Like that game, you attend to moving and fighting, and the computer does all the boring figuring. In Shiloh, you'll fight a lot more hand-to-hand melees than in Gettysburg, so it's crucial to keep an eye on the status of your troops. There's nothing so frustrating as sending a unit into an otherwise carefully-planned assault, only to find that it's out of ammo or disrupted. One word about the AI: it works pretty well if you let the computer play the Union. Since it's almost always easier to play defense than offense, the computer seems pretty capable of handling the Union role. You'll probably beat it if you play the Rebs, but it'll be a challenge. One the other hand, the computer (at least in the scenarios I played)  was totally incompetent when it came to running the Confederates. It consistently made crazy attacks - often outnumbered and up steep hills and into heavy artillery fire. It also seemed to lack any coherent strategy, as attacks were piecemeal and uncoordinated. I have yet to play any of these games against a human opponent (what about it, Jack?) but I think this is where they would really shine.

Even though the AI is a little dull, this is Talonsoft's best offering since Gettysburg. It's a fine crossover game; even non-wargamers will enjoy the game's graphics and sound; the tense game situation and first-rate scenarios offer a gaming challenge as exciting as anything out there. It'll be interesting to see how the Battleground series handles the challenge of Antietam, their next release and a notoriously difficult battle to simulate. But given their stellar work to date, I'm betting they'll pull it off.

--Rick Fehrenbacher