Carl and I played our first game of Columbia’s newest release, Gettysburg. Hypothetical question: at what point will I not need any wargames from companies other than Columbia? Sure, there is still a niche for great, meaty games like Ardennes ’44, Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, Grant Takes Command, and Burma. But amongst wargames I actually get to play, Columbia has been slowly eclipsing everything else.
First impression: this is a game with a great feel. I was immediately taken with it for similar reasons as EastFront – it’s a substantial, meaty game, with a lot of blocks and rich detail, but one with very manageable rules. Far more manageable than EastFront. Simpler even than Hammer of the Scots I’d say, but you get a quite substantial game, one with lots of tactical and operational choices, one which always puts you on the horns of a dilemma, and has a very nice historical feel. Because there are a lot of units, there is great drama – the hordes of Confederates massing against Cemetery Ridge, the Union line straining and buckling but not breaking – the same sort of drama you get from EastFront, but in a more manageable package. I’d say that this gets basically everything good from The Gamer’s Civil War Brigade series in a fraction of the package size with vastly great playability. I’ll never play Thunder at the Crossroads again. Not that I would have seriously considered doing so before I got this game, but I have to think about all the CWB series is good for at this point is a baseline for maps and OOBs for new games in this series. Seriously.
To take the high level view, this seems to be a very nice blend of both strong resource management and tactical elements. On the one hand, command steps are a scarce commodity, you never have enough troops, and you have to spend your limited resources wisely in choosing where and how strongly to attack or defend, and when to hold and when to retreat. However, the game also give you plenty of interesting tactical details on how to move your units, deal with terrain, and choose your weapons to overcome the defenders.
Like most tactical and operational Civil War games, at the core of Gettysburg is the command structure. The basic unit is the brigade, which can move on its own but not attack. A handful of brigades make a division, with divisional leaders having to spend steps to coordinate fire and press attacks, and each leader’s ability to do this is rather limited (moreso for the Union). Corps leaders provide support by “refreshing” a divisional leader’s steps at critical junctures, allowing them to continue operating, and Army leaders can add steps to any unit.
The Confederate and Union armies have very different command structures, and it means they play very differently. The Union has more smaller divisions of 2-3 brigades and a divisional leader, while Corps have 3 or so divisions and maybe one attached artillery unit. Confederate divisions, on the other hand, are huge, with their own attached artillery, and Corps are larger still. While the Confederates have one outstanding Corps leader (Longstreet), in general there isn’t a huge difference between the Union and the Confederates at the Corps level … where the Confederates do well is in the Divisional leader department, where their leaders are dramatically superior to the Union. On the other hand, while the large Confederate Divisions and Corps make their focussed attacks quite potent, it also makes them somewhat less flexible. So while the Union will find it hard to coordinate the 2-3 divisions required for a counterattack, they have decent defensive flexibility because they can detach small numbers of units to hotspots and efficiently fight smaller actions while keeping formations together, a critical issue since brigades out of touch with their divisional leader can’t effectively attack anything but the most feeble opposition. And the Union corps leaders will almost always be in the right place at the right time to coordinate multi-divisional attacks, even if they aren’t brilliant at it, while the Confederate Corps leaders can be much more easily caught out-of-position.
The Gettysburg battle also has a much more interesting feel than I’ve generally given it credit for. I must be about the only wargamer my age to never have played any of the many incarnations of Avalon Hill’s Gettysburg game. Anyway, what you have here is a tiny battle (starting with just a couple divisions on the map) escalating to a massive conflagration. The Union is clearly on the defensive here, but still the tenor of the battle changes each time another big batch of reinforcements arrive. The first day is a desperate holding action for the Union, with each reinforcing division providing critical relief, but if they can hold out until evening things improve.
Anyway, probably the best I can give you here are some basic tips to avoid my fate in your first game of the Day 1 scenario as the Union (and some of these can be turned around for advice to the Confederates, of course). So here you go:
- Do not get any units Buford’s cavalry division shattered. These are very good units, but they are hung out and the penalty for shattered units is extremely high. Do what you can to inflict some casualties, but these units’ capacity to meaningfully delay III Corps is minimal. In order to make sure they survive more or less intact, you’ll need to …
- Play the game very differently when you move second vs. first. Turn flip-flops (where one player gets two turns in a row) are critical for you and if, for example, Buford’s division is adjacent to a bunch of Confederate units at the end of your move when you’re going first, they’ll get outflanked and wiped out if the Confederates get a double move. While you may not have much choice in the case of your critical defensive lines, your pickets should be moving out of threatened positions when facing down a potential double-move. 1VP for a shattered unit is a lot, and you’ll have your share of them when the Confederates go after Cemetery Ridge. No need to make their job any easier.
- That all being said, as long as you are going second, you can maintain forward positions since the Confederates won’t be able to fire at/assault you unless they start adjacent. These forward positions can slow the enemy down significantly. Just keep an eye on the risks and get out when they become unpalatable, i.e., are threatening to severely maul or shatter a unit.
- Obviously, you’ll need to garrison both Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top. You’ll probably need to send two divisions to Little Round Top before you’d like to. Just be sure to put a unit on that anonymous hill between the two positions, lest the Confederates slip between the gaps to go after Powers Hill and/our outflank Cemetery Ridge, both of which are bad, bad, bad. Any interference with the timely arrival of your reinforcements to Cemetery Ridge is cause for serious alarm.
- Hills with Trees on them are good. Hills without Trees are OK, but you are vulnerable to being simply swept off by fire, which is not penalized by shooting up. And you are desperately short of the Artillery that can do real damage. Your guys on unprotected hills are likely going to get pasted. You still have to defend them, though.
- While it’s tempting to simply plop the Iron Brigade down and make a position like Cemetery Hill impregnable, if you’re not using your best unit to blast stuff, you’re not getting very good mileage out of it. Keep it in the hotspots, or in reserve and throw it into the inevitable breach or counterattack. While the Confederates have a very nasty 4-step B3 early (Pettigrew), they are very short on A-level units, which have a big advantage in Melee if the number of units is small.
- Benner Hill is not very defensible. If the Confederates want it (and they should), they’ll get it. Get over it.
- Losing (Little) Round Top, Culp’s Hill, or Powers Hill is likely to be decisive. You can afford to lose Cemetery Hill and still hold out to the second day. Don’t get killed by trying to hold the line on Cemetery Ridge longer than possible in the face of determined Confederate assault.
- While you certainly want to stay open to the option of counterattacking, especially if the Confederates have stripped the Peach Orchard area to go after Cemetery Ridge with everything they’ve got, you are seriously outgunned in this confrontation. Your units are not on a one-for-one basis much inferior, but the Confederates have a decisive artillery advantage on day 1 and their better command structure and division leaders means they can press the attack far longer than you can – once your leaders are tapped out (which will happen disturbingly quickly in most cases), you become extremely vulnerable. So stick to limited-objective, local (counter-)attacks. While the Confederates get 25% fewer supply points overnight, each point they get is worth significantly more than yours due to their vastly better divisional leaders. Keep this fact firmly in mind when managing attrition.
I enjoyed Gettysburg quite a bit, and look forward to our next game. I was very extremely happy with the complexity to depth ratio here. Another great thing about Columbia, I think, is that while they often do games with related systems (Hammer and Liberty, say, or Victory and Pacific Victory or Rommel and EastFront), you can never accuse them of standing still. Each game they do has a very different flavor, scale, or feel. It’s on a different complexity level, or has a greater or lesser block density, or a different strategic scope. So while Gettysburg is familiar in the abstract (the leaders are much like HQs in EastFront, melee is just like Wizard Kings/Hammer/Liberty, etc.), it still feels quite unique and different in their line. Hopefully, they’ll do a Shiloh game using the same system before moving on.