The American Civil War caused more American deaths than any other conflict in the country’s history. It is remembered as a war between former neighbors and friends. It was a war between kids over a dispute that somehow got far out of hand. It was a war for the rights of people who had been reduced to property. It was a war that represented the domination of one economy over another in pursuit of empire-building. The Civil War shaped the country’s identity, and whatever its motives or consequences may have been, it’s a turning point in the current world superpower’s self-construction.
The title of the game, Brother Against Brother: The Drawing of the Sword, incites all these feelings: the rhetorical self-destruction of a nation, the enslavement of black Americans and the terms and caveats that came with their liberation, and the industrialization of the new Union. It’s a very powerful title all things considered. Yet the game does not incite these feelings, it barely recognizes them except for a few quotes here or there. Instead, Brother Against Brother is a fairly cold and mechanical approach to the Civil War.
The player who opens the game will find several maps and scenarios with little toy soldiers peppered over a hex-grid. The player and the opposing AI or enemy player will take turns moving squads nearer and nearer to one another, vying for more optimal ground or shepherding enemy regiments toward more punishing circumstances. The player takes on the role of a pair of eyes studying a map and a voice issuing commands.
The game offers several different battles with different circumstances. What if, instead of retreating, this cautious commander gambled an attack? What would it take for that historical loser to win this important day? The game then challenges the player to win in what is both a historical re-enactment of events and a speculative re-imagination of the war’s battles. Troops automatically supply themselves, administrative staff automatically keep combatants organized, and commanders automatically order attacks against nearby enemies. The player’s only goal is to organize the movement and priorities of their army as a whole.
This is far more difficult than it sounds. In fact, the 214 page manual needs a few skims before the obtuse UI and mechanics become approachable. The actions of war are automatic, but all the support and movement is dense and unintuitive. That said, the game takes pains to offer an authentic Civil War battle. As the manual explains, troops attack, surrender, and march according to the tactics based on the actual events of the Civil War. A player who hovers over a regiment’s weapon type will be treated to a detailed history of the weapon type, its use, its manufacture, its range and its availability. The game offers a myriad of tools that the player can unpack to win each battle but it’s the research that details every tool that really impresses.
But as impressive as the research is and as detailed as the map is, the title of the game still stands out. It’s such an odd thing to fixate on, but the game does not portray brothers fighting brothers. It portrays pieces on a map easing into firing range of one another with the objective of causing more casualties than they suffer. The player just needs to win the day for whatever flag they represent because that’s what commanders are paid to do. The purpose of the battle doesn’t matter. The consequences of the victory don’t matter. Maybe that’s the point—that for all the rhetoric surrounding the Civil War, the soldiers fighting it and the commanders commanding it were doing a job and trying to eke out a victory.
History is typically understood as the sum of facts gleaned from surviving documents, whereas historiography is the study of how history as a narrative comes to exist. Historiography is history as it is understood from a social and moral legacy, one that shapes what comes after it. Like all stories, historiography has a writer with a persuasive purpose. But Brother Against Brother is not a storyteller, it is a file of documents. Brother Against Brother understands the events in America between spring of 1861 through to’65 through maps and quotes from the diaries of important figures. When playing it, winning feels good and losing feels frustrating. No matter what figurative uniform the player is put in, there’s a detachment from moving people from fortresses and forests into battlefields.
That’s fine, I would never suggest that organizing documents isn’t necessary, but I keep returning to that title. Brother Against Brother feels rhetorically empty. Soldiers don’t feel like people in the game, even if they behave soldierly and maps don’t feel earthy, even if conditions are tactically important. The historiography is missing. There’s no narrative to the battles, just a win condition. This is the kind of thing that normally asks for a value judgement. A review is expected to declare that Brother Against Brother is either good or bad because it succeeds or fails under this or that condition, but the most interesting thing about it—in my mind—isn’t whether it is good or bad or whether it succeeds or not. Brother Against Brother points to the differences between how history is understand both in terms of what it presents and what it omits.
Mechanically, the game is sound, if a little tough to grasp. Its presentation is serviceable, even if the brassy marching band soundtrack wears a little thin over time. But Brother Against Brother: The Drawing of the Sword interests me because it is a superb summary of historical facts, one sufficient maybe, to know the Civil War, but it provides little argumentative substance to understand it. Maybe that isn’t necessary for a game to work, but it is one of the most striking things about this game.