The first game, Robert E. Lee: Civil War General, was released in 1996. Its campaign mode allowed the player to fill Lee's shoes as commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia as it fought in the most famous battles of the Eastern Theater, from First Manassas to the Wilderness.
The sequel, Civil War Generals II: Grant, Lee, Sherman, came out the following year and is best thought of as a vastly Updated Re-release. Among some of its most notable changes were:
- A number of new battle scenarios to expand the Eastern Theater Campaign.
- A number of new campaigns, including:
- One for the Western Theater covering from Shiloh to Atlanta.
- A number of smaller campaign modes such as the Seven Days' Battles and Jackson's Shenandoah Valley Campaign.
- A truly epic "Grand Campaign" that essentially allows one to fight every major battle of the war in sequence.
- The ability to play any campaign as either the North or the South.
- A number of alternate setups for most battles, both for the single-player campaign (if the player did exceptionally well — or poorly — on his last battle) and for more balanced multiplayer matches.
- An expanded unit pool, including river gunboats and monitors.
- A built-in map and scenario editor to allow players to create their own custom battles and campaigns.
As far as game mechanics are concerned, the two games are almost identical. Battles take place on a hex grid map, and each army's objective is to accumulate victory points by inflicting casualties, capturing supplies, and (in the second game) capturing key locations on the map. Capturing supplies is especially beneficial, since these supplies not only serve as a stockpile to replenish individual units' ammunition during battle but also can be used as currency to purchase better weapons.
This series provides examples of the following tropes:
- Alternate History: In addition to the previously mentioned alternate scenarios, a Confederate player who does well enough will eventually have the option of launching an all-out attack to capture Washington, D.C.
- Ascended Extra: Often happens when a commander who was significant in Real Life gets killed off early in the war in-game. Annoyingly, if said commanders died in combat in Real Life, they'll still disappear around that time period even if they survive the battle they were originally killed in (so sorry, no epic showdown between John Reynolds and "Stonewall" Jackson at The Wilderness in these games).
- Color-Coded Armies: Blue for the North and gray (uniforms) / red (minimap blips) for the South, respectively.
- Dual Mode Unit: Most units have two formations: one for marching and one "deployed" stance (a firing line for infantry, an unlimbered battery for artillery, a pitched tent for corps headquarters, etc.). Likewise, cavalry can switch between mounted and dismounted.
- The Engineer: The game features Engineer units, which are useful for constructing pontoon bridges and some light fortifications.
- Field Promotion: If a unit commander dies, the next senior leader gets bumped up to his slot. For instance, if one of your corps commanders gets sniped in his headquarters tent, the senior division commander takes up his post, while his own senior brigade commander fills his old seat, etc.
- Fog of War
- Fragile Speedster: Cavalry in general. Their speed and offensive shock power make them great for exploiting weaknesses in the enemy lines, but they tend to have fewer men than most infantry units and are especially vulnerable to artillery and sharpshooters.
- Geo Effects: Terrain plays an important role in battle — attacking units receive a firepower bonus when the enemy is downhill from them, units in rough terrain or behind walls get a defensive bonus, and elevations and forests block units' line of sight and most forms of artillery fire.
- Morale Mechanic: The games also have a morale mechanic for individual regiments / brigades. In fact, the game manuals explain at length that maintaining morale during Civil War battles tended to be much more important than actually killing the opposition. This is reflected in-game by the kill counts being relatively small, but desertions and captures numbering in the thousands after a decisive battle.
- Non-Entity General: While every other commander is attached to a unit of some kind, the overall general of the army of either side is not present on the map.
- Remixed Level: II includes alternate versions of historical battles from the The American Civil War. Some of these are intended to be more balanced for multiplayer, while others seek to explore alternate deployments that didn't actually happen for one reason or another.
- Sawed-Off Shotgun: A weapons option for cavalry units.
- Sniper Rifle: Used by entire units of sharpshooters. Handy for picking off unprotected generals.
- Sword and Gun: Sabers and pistols is another weapons option for cavalry, though this one generally has less overall firepower than the others.
- Timed Mission: Turn-based variant — the battle ends after a set date and time and scores are calculated based off each side's performance at that point if one side hasn't forced the other to retreat by then.
- Universal Ammunition: All weapons, from muskets to howitzers, replenish from an abstract pool of supply points.
- Washington D.C. Invasion: As noted above, the ultimate Confederate objective. You get a chance to pull this off after a decisive victory in the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Gettysburg, or the Battle of the Wilderness. The later the invasion is, the less prepared Washington's defenders are.