Civil War Squad Leader
This is a fun little game, but it's important to understand what you're getting. For $7, it should be clear that this is not some sort of Civil War grand strategy game a la Hearts of Iron. But, from the 1864 in the title and Hunted Cow's description of the game, you might be forgiven for thinking you'll get the chance to play out some full-scale historical battles — but it's not that, either. This is a hyper-small-scale game, similar to a Civil War version of the old Avalon Hill board game Squad Leader, where you control a few units in a small segment of a battle. The overall battle is just flavor text in the scenario description and tool tips showing unit names when you hover the mouse over them. Something like, "On the third day of the battle, General Sherman ordered a small Union force to hold the woods on his left flank against a large Confederate advance until reinforcements could be brought up." And then you get a 10-15 turn scenario with a bunch of entrenched Union units trying to hold off a larger number of Confederate units advancing across open terrain. The campaign system seems to exist only for marketing purposes — all it means is that you have to finish the earlier scenarios to unlock the next ones. There's no carryover of units, experience, or resources; and, since you can play as either side, they can't even increase the difficulty as the "campaign" progresses.
But Squad Leader was one of the most popular hex map board games of all time and this game rises to that challenge. The game play's quick and fun, with each scenario taking about an hour to play. With 35 scenarios playable as either side, you get quite a bit for your $7. The battles are fun and engaging with terrain, formation, and unit type playing important roles. This is quick, detailed tactical combat that crams a lot of depth into a game that can be played in an hour.
On the minus side, it crashes. A lot. Fortunately, it's super fast to load and saves every turn, so you don't lose a whole lot when it does. I've played entire scenarios without a crash — but not often. Even worse, there's no manual and no tool tips. I mentioned that terrain and formation are important; the problem is, you really don't know how important. For example, entering woods or a building causes you to lose your formation and become "unformed," presumably as a trade-off for the cover bonuses of the terrain. But you don't know what the cover bonuses of the terrain are, nor do you know what the penalties of losing your formation are, so there's no information to go on when making this trade-off. You just have to hope your definition of "how things should work" matches the designer's. Take a look at the "In-Depth Combat Analysis" screenshot — it shows an arm with a 10 (that's your unit strength), a rifle with a 20% next to it (chance to hit, maybe?), and then a yellow bar with two small rifles next to it (no idea). None of those symbols are explained. There are also several other possible symbols not shown in the screenshot, some of which I've figured out, some of which I haven't.
For a small-scale game where they really weren't limited by history, since they were cherry-picking interesting bits of larger batles, the designers have put surprisingly little effort into play balance. Some scenarios I find to be a good challenge on Average difficulty, while others are nearly impossible on Easy and still others are a yawn on Hard. And, of course, there's no way to tell which are which without trying them. Instead of the silly campaign system, they'd have been better off having all the scenarios start unlocked and organizing them by which side they favored, so players could select a challenge appropriate to their familiarity with the game.
Overall, a good game on paper, but it feels like they ran out of money and released it incomplete. The counterpoint would be, what do you expect for $7? But I'd rather have paid $10 or $12 for something less buggy, better organized, and with a manual. Civil War buffs looking for historical recreations should avoid like the plague, but for gamers looking for a tactical-level game, it's fun despite the flaws. Four stars for game play, minus one for constant crashes, lack of documentation, and misleading marketing.