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A House Divided:
Reincarnation of a Classic

Retrospect

It is the summer of 1982 and the place is Birmingham, Alabama. At a session of the War Eagles Gaming Club two gamers proudly exclaim the merits of SPI’s War Between the States.

“Look at the three maps. Each as big as a normal game. And all those counters!” one proudly proclaims.

“Yes,” his partner says, “imagine all the research alone for the leadership values. This must be the greatest Civil War game ever designed!”

A much younger Mike Bennighof and William Sariego overhear this exchange, sitting at a gaming table playing GDW’s A House Divided.

William lifts his eyebrow in his best Mr. Spock imitation: “Greatest ever?”

Mike replies loud enough to be overheard, “That game looks like it’s never been played.”

The first two gamers indeed hear, and stare briefly at their mint copy of War Between the States before packing it away without another word. It is never seen again at the club. A Housed Divided continues to be played on a regular basis. . . .

Frank Chadwick’s Gem

When A House Divided first released in 1981, the “Big Game” trend was still in fashion. Monster games were the epitome of the strategy game hobby. Some gamers who purchased A House Divided recall being put off that such a small game came in a standard, bookcase box. Yet any disappointment vanished upon playing. A House Divided constantly received praise in the hobby press, from Campaign to The Wargamer.

It was released in a second edition in 1989 (in a smaller box) with some expanded rules for optional detail and a rather weird, interlocking mounted map (that warped over time). After the demise of Game Designer’s Workshop it appeared that this remarkable little game would fade into history.

Then in 2001 Phalanx Games, a Netherlands-based company, released A House Divided in the “Euro” game format, giving an old classic new life, and putting it before the eyes of a new generation of gamers.

The Phalanx Edition

In an era when wargames easily cost from $60-$70 for flimsy paper maps and little counters, A House Divided is an incredible bargain at $49.99. You get 160 beautifully illustrated 1-inch game pieces, a large 28 x 20-inch mounted mapboard, three rulebooks (basic rules, advanced rules, scenarios and optionals), three stand-up leader markers (Grant, Lee, Sherman), a wooden peg to use as a turn marker (which wraps around the edge of the map), and six large dice (appropriately three gray and three blue!).

All in all, the game is a visual treat.

But Have You Ever Played It?

I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count! A House Divided is one of the most playable, and most replayable games ever designed. Here is a capsule summary of how it works, starting with what you are trying to accomplish. My summary refers to the Basic Game. Advanced and optional rules will be mentioned afterwards.

The game begins in July, 1861. The Union starts the game with a 12 unit to eight advantage, command of the sea and a superior rail network.

The Union is attempting to capture all Confederate cities which have a recruitment value of “2” or “3.” These are Atlanta, Charleston, Memphis, Mobile, New Orleans, Richmond and Wilmington. The South can win aggressively by either capturing Washington or capturing enough Northern recruitment cities so that his Army Maximum (that is, manpower base) is greater than the Union’s. The South can also win if the North has not accomplished its victory condition by the end of turn 40 (June, 1865).

Movement

The American Civil War was characterized by periods of inactivity punctuated by spurts of movement and major battles. This is simulated by each side having a variable number (two to six) of “Marches” to activate stacks for movement. Movement on the area-based map (no hexes here) is based on lines of communication: road, rail, and river. Sea movement and amphibious invasions are also possible for the North. The former costs one March per unit (not stack) from friendly port to friendly port; the latter is only possible if rolling a six to determine Marches.

Unit type determines how far a unit can move per March (and a unit can be given two Marches per turn). Infantry moving by road or unfriendly rail move one area; two by river or friendly rail. Cavalry move two regardless. You must stop in an area with enemy units and fight in the combat phase with two exceptions. Union units (only) moving downriver, as indicated on the map, may move two areas, jumping over a Confederate stack in the first area. Cavalry of both sides can jump once per turn over an enemy stack if that stack does not also contain cavalry.

Combat

Combat occurs when units of both sides occupy the same area. You remove the units from the map and line them up opposite one another. Each unit has a combat value from one to three and gets to shoot once each round, hitting by rolling its combat value or less. The defender gets to fire first, gaining a tactical advantage. Each unit can take one hit (flip the game piece). A second hit eliminates it.

Terrain and unit quality can modify the “to hit” number. If a defending unit is entrenched (either in a fortress city or by digging in by expending a March in the movement phase) a “-1” modifier is assessed on the attackers chance to hit (so a unit that would hit on a three or less hits on a two or less instead). A “Crack” infantry unit is an elite unit that also modifies fire directed at it by “-1.” A Crack infantry under an entrenchment is going to be tough to hit! Attacking across rivers helps the defender by increasing his To Hit range by +1 on the first two rounds of battle. Naval invasions count as crossing rivers, also.

After the first round is over, players can reinforce from adjacent areas or retreat in lieu of firing in subsequent rounds. The side which wins the battle gets a free promotion, which leads me to . . .

Promotion and Recruitment

Units are rated as Militia, Veteran, or Crack. The higher up the food chain, the better they fight!

All units start out as Militia. You get to promote one survivor immediately after a battle if you win. You also get one free promotion per turn. Both players will have a pool of unrecruited Militia that can thus be recruited in that phase.

Recruited units are placed one per recruitment city. The Recruitment level for the Union at the start of the game is 34, the Confederacy is 28. This is the value of all Recruitment cities controlled. This level can go up (max of 36) or down as cities are captured. Neither side may have more units on the board than its Recruitment level.

Advanced and Optional Rules

These are many and varied, adding detail at the cost of playing time. These rules run an amazing spectrum and make A House Divided as realistic as any game on the subject if you play with them. Leaders and battlefield morale, various recruitment differences between North and South, coastal garrisons (important for the South!) and even foreign intervention forces are covered!

Strategy and Summary

An aggressive win for the South is possible early on, if you are fortunate on Marches. This possibility rapidly fades as a realistic alternative to victory after April 1862 (when the Union adds four more Militia to their recruitment pool). The most common way to Southern independence is a win on time by denying the Union your key Recruitment cities. One thorn in the side of Mr. Lincoln is the vulnerability of his rear area recruitment cities to cavalry raids. (Remember the Jump move mentioned earlier?)

The Union also can win early, but stands to be hurt in the long run by bad luck with early, aggressive play (remember 1st Manassas!). A slow buildup and encroachment of the Southern heartland akin to General Scott’s Anaconda Plan is the solid avenue to victory. Taking advantage of naval opportunities is a must — Mr. Davis simply cannot garrison the long, vulnerable coastline everywhere. Indeed, three of those vital “2” recruitment cities are on the coast!

For two to three hours of playing time, A House Divided simply cannot be beat. There are games out there that take that long just to set up! Those are the games that never get played.

Owners of previous editions cannot go wrong with this lavish update to one of the greatest wargames of all times. It is a perfect introduction for newcomers to our hobby.

William Sariego
December 2004