When it comes to writing anything, they say, you should begin with what you know. That being the case, I’ll begin this series, Great Strategy Games of the Past, with my very first experience of strategy gaming. Focussing on the American Civil War, the game in question, North & South, was published by Infogrames and released for the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST in 1989.
I should qualify, when I say this was ‘my’ very first experience of strategy gaming, that is not entirely true. What I should say is that this was my first experience watching somebody else play a strategy game. You see, unlike some of my peers growing up, I never had an Amiga or an Atari. So, for the most part, I had to be content with playing the eager spectator. However, such was the spell North & South cast on me that I would go out of my way to visit friends, just so I could look on as they played. Those tiny clashes of blue and grey, viewed over a friend’s shoulder, are etched into my mind as clearly as any childhood memory. But it wasn’t just the gameplay that made North & South so endearing, it was the sense of humour the game exuded.
Themes and Inspiration
The American Civil War and all its attendant politics are etched into the national psyche of the United States. So deep run the scars of that distant era, that they continue to hold relevance today. But, make no mistake, whilst North & South’s subject matter may revolve around one of the keystone periods in American history, this is no Ken Burns documentary. For this reason, it is perhaps less than surprising that North & South comes from somewhere outside of America. Indeed, the game, which came from a French Studio, is unabashedly European in both its origins and its sensibilities. Indeed, at one stage, North & South was envisioned as taking place during an entirely different conflict, as lead developer Stéphane Baudet revealed in an interview with Hardcore Gaming 101:
Since I was quite fond of board games, I toyed with the idea of designing a real-time strategy game-the first of its genre–set during the Napoleonic Wars. Fortunately, Infogrames had acquired the Tuniques Bleues’ IP, but the project wasn’t going anywhere, so I transposed my idea.Stéphane Baudet
For those not in the know, Les Tuniques Bleues, which began its run in 1970 and continues to this day, is a popular Belgian comic series, set during the American Civil War. Like the game, it inspired, Les Tuniques Bleues eschews strict historical accuracy in favour of a more comedic tone.
From its opening screen, where the sound of approaching hoofbeats descends into a crash with an attendant rooster call, it is clear that North & South is going to be an irreverent experience. And things get no more serious beyond the title screen. There, on the mode select screen, players can elicit a dirty laugh by tickling the photographer’s backside; I remember that one entertaining nine-year-old me to no end. The charming, comic-book artwork, reminiscent of that other Belgian staple, Tintin, was impressive for its time and perfectly captured the sense of parody the developers were aiming for.
The mode-select screen allows the player to customize the game in several ways. Firstly, players make the all-important decision as to which side they will play. By clicking on the portraits, sides can be set for either human control or a variety of AI skill levels. Secondly, players select a starting year for the campaign. The chosen starting year directly affects the distribution of states between Union and Confederate forces, in-game, reflecting how the fortunes of the sides waxed and waned between 1861 and 1864 who said this game wasn’t historically accurate. Aside from this, players can turn battles on or off, depending on how much control they want over the action. They can also activate or de-activate a number of random effects such as Indian attacks, weather conditions, and European reinforcement. With the game preferences set and the photographer’s bottom tickled once more for good measure, it’s time to delve into the game properly.
In terms of the strategic layer, North & South is a relatively light affair. Players (yes you can play side-by-side multi-player), place and control armies across a map of the USA, capturing and ceding territory as they move from state to state. Armies are formed and replenished by rail. Therefore, where possible, it is important to gain control of those states containing stations. Players need also to be wary of environmental conditions. Storms provide a constant hindrance, whilst the ever-vigilant Native American, perched on the western border, will randomly decide to assail an army, wiping it out. Likewise, a sleepy Mexican, enjoying a siesta, will occasionally awake to throw a bomb into Texas, killing any occupying troops. There is certainly fun to be had in managing the map, but the real appeal of North & South is where the action is at. Whenever two armies would otherwise occupy the same state, a battle ensues.
Battles can either be resolved automatically or through short, action-driven sequences played out on terrain maps. In battle, each army is represented by units of infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Player’s move, charge and shoot these units at the enemy until they either wipe out the opposition or force them into retreat. The process, whilst thoroughly enjoyable, has little of the tactical nuance one might expect of a modern strategy title and probably owes more to arcade shooters such as Space Invaders or Galaxian than anything else.
Aside from the boardgame-like strategy player and the arcade battles, North & South also leverages a third genre the platformer. Across the map are located several forts which, like the train stations, are strategically significant. Unlike other states, those containing a fort cannot be captured by simply moving an army into the territory. Instead, the player must attempt to seize the stronghold by playing out a platform mini-game. In this mini-game, the player must race from one end of the fort to the other, dodging traps, guard dogs, and enemy soldiers, whilst a timer mercilessly ticks down. The same is true should one of your armies attempt to capture a train (carrying gold) in your enemy’s territory. These brief platform sequences are surprisingly challenging and I remember a genuine sense of achievement whenever I completed one (usually after several attempts).
What amazed my young mind about North & South was less the quality of each individual game component, but the sum of its parts. In an era where games were largely limited to one mode of gameplay, North & South had multiple layers. And this multi-level gameplay seems to have been precisely the intention of the lead developer, Stephane Baude who recalls.
The gist of it was to offer dual-layer gameplay, with both a tactical map of the American Civil War, to move units around on, and an action phase to determine the outcome of each battle.Stéphane Baude
From XCOM: UFO Defense, to Lords of the Realm, to the Total War titles, dual-layer gaming has long been a feature of the strategy genre. As a pioneering effort in multi-layer gameplay, North & South could be said to have played a significant role in establishing this key pillar of modern strategy gaming.
In terms of North & South’s personal legacy, the game enjoyed a high degree of popularity at the time and was ported to many other contemporary systems, including Amstrad, ZX Spectrum, MS DOS & the NES. Contemporary reviews recognized the simple fun that North & South brought to the table. For example, Andy Smith of Amiga Format, who awarded an overall score of 74%, praised the game’s multiplayer element:
“It’s simple stuff, but very enjoyable. The computer opponent is not the world’s smartest, so it’s not too difficult to beat. Play against a human with the arcade sequences turned on and things become a lot more interesting.”
Amiga Action, on the other hand, which granted an overall score of 84%, was particularly glowing in its praise of the game’s visuals, stating that the graphics were:
“Quite simply brilliant. Each stage features a wealth of cartoon-quality graphics, which move realistically. The backdrops are bright and colourful, and the presentation is faultless.”
Whilst it never spawned any sequels, North & South has enjoyed an afterlife of sorts through three remakes: The Blue Coats: North vs South (2012), by Microids; North & South: The Game (2012) by bitComposer Entertainment AG, and The Bluecoats: North & South (2020), again by Microids.
Some games and I include North & South in this, are of their time. They might perfectly capture a particular cultural zeitgeist, only to rightfully drift into obsolescent obscurity. For me and my 1989 peer group, North & South represented new and exciting possibilities in the relatively nascent media form of video games. Indeed, for all that it might be viewed as a primitive ancestor to modern strategy titles, it was this very game that engendered my own lifelong obsession with the genre.
*Quotations taken from Thomas Ribault, Hardcore Gaming 101 Presents Epopee – Tales from French Game Developers (2019). Available in hard copy and e-book from Amazon.
Quick Gameplay Footage
I’m Andy and I’m based in the ‘pokey wee village’ of Lochwinnoch in Scotland. There I dabble in writing, painting, and any number of other hobbies you might care to mention. I have a deep and abiding love for games, particularly strategy games, which I’ve been playing since the late eighties. You can often find me on eBay, where I run a shop selling Warhammer books and models. I have a PhD in medieval history which, thus far, has proven absolutely no use at all in furthering my career aspirations.