Brain behind the wargames

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Chris Withers bends down over the game board map, peers at the stacks of cardboard pieces representing different units, and rolls the dice. One red, one white, they tumble across the game board. His playing partner, Thibault Nguyen from Paris, watches intently.

“I’m going on the offensive, because if I wait too long he’ll just crush me in the long run,” Withers says.

The two friends are playing “On to Richmond!,” an installment in a series of games based on the Civil War, about half of which are co-designed by Withers, a board game enthusiast since he was a child.

“This takes a number of days to play, playing all day,” said Withers. “It’s a very interesting game system, while the rules are somewhat extensive – there are 20 pages for the base rules and 20 pages for this game we’re playing – it’s very easy to understand and very intuitive.”

The category of games that Withers and Nguyen favor are called wargames, long-term war simulations that pit two players against each other in a contest of wit and strategy. Most wargame campaigns take upwards of 40 hours to finish, with gameplay spread out over days. Shorter scenarios only take a few hours.

On the day the Beacon visited, Withers and Nguyen had set the game up in Withers’ garage, where it took up a five-foot by five-foot space where a car would normally be. They were playing “On to Richmond!” a game based off of General George B. McClellan's failed campaign to take Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Withers was playing as the Confederacy, and Nguyen as the Union.

“This particular game is the “On to Richmond!” Campaign of 1862, where McLennan shipped around DC and came to attack Richmond, and Lee came to prominence by counter attacking him away,” said Withers. “These maps are Civil War Era maps. This is how Virginia looked in the 1860s. The same roads and forests and whatnot.”

While the game looks complicated at first sight, it’s relatively straightforward.

After setting up the board dice are rolled, which decides who takes the first move. That player moves a unit, rolling again to determine how far that unit can move, and then adds a fatigue counter. Once a piece gets to four fatigue counters, the player can’t move that unit anymore. The two players go back and forth in this fashion, rolling, moving, fatiguing, and once all is in position, attacking.

“What these board games try and do is present chaos to the player,” said Withers. “Instead of fixed rules, like I go, you go, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. It’s roll the dice to see who goes, so you never really know what’s going to happen. It’s up to the player to manage the chaos of the battle, so it’s very interesting.”

Sometimes it’ll rain, and units can’t move over rivers, or the players will roll snake eyes, immediately ending the turn, whether an attack was imminent or not.

Withers friend and playing partner, Thibault Nguyen, had come all the way from Paris to play in the World Boardgaming Championships at Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Pennsylvania. On the way back to France, he stopped in Rhode Island to visit and play some wargames with Withers.

“I have a club, the Paris Wargaming Club, which is in the high military college in Paris,” said Nguyen. “We are civilians obviously, but we have a place to play these games. There are a lot of wargamers in Europe, France, and Paris in particular. With a phone, email, or Facebook you can play every night and all weekend long.”

Nguyen’s also one of the organizers of a three-day wargaming convention in Paris in September, which brings in historical wargamers from all over France.

The process for making wargames is extensive.

Before he even starts on the technical aspects, Withers does extensive research on the battle or campaign the game is to be based on. His office is full of Civil War books, and he references the actual reports from the generals when making decisions about the strength of certain units, their placement, or even the weather.

“For the design we go into the official records of the Civil War, and the general’s reports saying here I was on such and such a day with 5,400 men,” said Withers. “So we do all this research to determine where the guys were, how tired they were, and we design all these different scenarios for each map.”

After an initial design is made, the play testing begins. It takes hundreds of hours of play testing before a game is polished and ready to go. Withers had a new game come out last year, and he’s already hard at work on another one.

“We try and make this as realistic as possible,” he said.

The maps are done by artists, keeping the realistic elements of the landscape at the time, and the pieces are printed on hard, shiny, pieces of cardboard. These games aren’t cheap. A game from the collection Withers works on, Great Campaigns of the American Civil War, costs new about $50, and the price can spike upwards of $100 on eBay, after they’re sold out of stores.

Withers is semi-retired with Raytheon and moved with his wife, Erin O’Brien, from Los Angeles only a year-and-half ago, but they love Rhode Island and Warwick. He first fell in love with board games playing Afrika Korps and Stalingrad as a kid, and he went to his first World Boardgaming Championship in 1999. He’s gone almost every year since, winning his fair share of awards, nailed up in his office.

“You have to do what’s important first,” said Withers, looking over the game board, contemplating his next move. “And there’s weather too, so you see here it rained. You can’t ford the rivers now. It’s rained a lot.”

There’s something special about becoming an armchair general, playing out history, even if it’s only in your garage.

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