Guns of Gettysburg

Gettysburg is a battle which has spawned a ton of wargames. Which, just from a gaming standpoint, seems odd. It was a battle where the Confederates had very little chance of achieving any meaningful military victory. It mostly featured them impaling themselves on extremely strong Union defensive positions. The Union on the other hand is usually completely reactive, as they entrench on the historical lines and throw the dice to resist Confederate frontal assaults. Most games which study the historical battle as it developed degenerate into marginally interesting slugfests.

Guns of Gettysburg brings a refreshing new perspective. Instead of trying to simulate the historical events, the design instead asks: what is the one big thing about Gettysburg – not individual elements like the fighting at Little Round Top, but an overarching thing – that was interesting? And let’s do that instead. The answer Bowen Simmons has is that Gettysburg was an accidental battle. Nobody really wanted to fight there, but that’s where the armies ran into each other and as reinforcements came pouring in the battle escalated. The importance of Cemetery Ridge was not inherent, it was just that’s where the Union line ended up and Confederates couldn’t walk away. Although the game deploys an impressive density of interesting design elements, this is the core idea that makes Guns of Gettysburg not just work, but be one of the most fascinating game designs to come along in years.

Starting from the premise that Gettysburg was a confused meeting engagement, not a set-piece, Guns of Gettysburg does three key things.

The first is to make unit arrival random, and combine this with victory conditions that move as the battle progresses. Divisions and corps from both sides show up at random times and in random order, although within a broadly historical structure. As a player, you’ll know which units are arriving next on each incoming road, but not when they’re going to show up. Obviously, this means that it’s possible the Confederates (or Union) could have almost their entire army show up before noon on the first day, while their opponent get only token reinforcements until late in the evening. Obviously, this changes the entire face of the battle and would be a recipe for dire play balance if we were fighting for a fixed set of objectives. So, Guns of Gettysburg deploys a simple but very clever objective system. The Union line is initially defined by three objective areas which starts out near McPherson’s ridge in the center, Warfield’s Ridge on the left, and Culp’s Hill on the right. They have to hold all three to win. Each hour on the first day that the Confederates have the preponderance of force on the map, the Union can move one of these objectives back one area, generally to more defensible terrain that is closer to the Union reinforcement areas and further from the Confederates. This is evaluated turn-by-turn, and because the exact contours of future reinforcements are unknown, you’re never quite sure where the line is going to end up. This is a big source of tension for the Union player. You’ll need to deploy your initial forces pretty far forward to hold the line, but you’ll probably also have to withdraw as the Confederates do enjoy better reinforcement odds on the first day. Timing and executing that withdrawal is the key to surviving the initial contact as the Union.

Second is that the design recognizes the fact that Gettysburg was a battle of sharp engagements and long pauses to reorganize, extend lines, and gather strength. This causes problems for games with fixed time scales – a lot of the time not a lot is happening. Guns of Gettysburg gives us variable length turns. If one side is attacking, turns are an hour each. If both sides are holding, though, turns telescope out to as many as 5 or 6 hours. These long turns allow the player with the initiative to execute longer line-extension marches that the defender has to try to anticipate. Bundling these long turns really speeds up these periods of maneuver and focuses the game on important decisions.

Lastly is the way that the game takes a lot of complexity and designs it into the physical components – in this case the mapboard – instead of writing a lot of rules. I’ve always said that one of the things that made Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage so powerful is that it took a lot of what would traditionally have been special “chrome” rules that you would have to keep in your mind all the time (Sicilian grain, Syracuse’s mixed loyalties, Rome’s manpower advantages) and puts them into the card deck, with dramatic improvements in the game’s playability and flavor. Guns of Gettysburg does something similar, elegantly offloading complicated terrain, line of sight, and fire zone rules onto the design of the game board itself. This is not to say that the rules for ridges and fire zones are simple, or that the map is visually easy to parse; they are not, and it can definitely be confusing until you get the hang of what it’s trying to do (it doesn’t help that the rules are not written as clearly as one might hope). However, once you’ve figured out the design, it packs a ton of interesting terrain detail into a very clean system. No more stringing line-of-site threads, calculating height differentials and slopes and blind zones, counting ranges, or arguing about exactly how many tree symbols are in a hex. The map itself takes care of everything.

These are the three big things that make Guns of Gettysburg a fascinating game. What makes it a great game is that everything surrounding these big ideas is also carefully crafted. The abstract system for artillery is simple yet captures a lot (when you withdraw you give up artillery positions, for example, and it takes time to reestablish them). The rules for command posture (attack, hold, or withdraw) are simple but make for tough, authentic choices. Going into detail on all the little things the game does right would involve writing more than you likely want to read, so I’ll leave them for you discover as you learn the game.

This is both the games greatest strength, and – to the extent it has one – its greatest weakness. Because Guns of Gettysburg resembles the best eurogames, designed from the ground up for a specific purpose and to create a specific effect, and not particularly beholden to any prior wargame design conventions, it can be hard to come to grips with. With 13 fairly dense pages of rules it’s considerably more complicated than any eurogame, and you really need to understand all the rules and their implications to understand the whole game. Usually when I learn a new wargame like France ’40 or FAB: Sicily or Crown of Roses (just to pick a few at random), I can just glance at big sections of the rules since I know how ZOC bonds or step reductions or ops cards work in general and I just need to learn the particular game’s quirks. Even if you’ve played Napoleon’s Triumph, Guns of Gettysburg is a largely unique game that has to be understood in its entirety. The game is quite intuitive in a lot of ways because of how effectively it models many things, and once you understand the premise and motivation of the design it all follows quite logically from them. Nonetheless, there are tricky details to nail down and it’ll probably take you a game or two to feel like you’re playing it correctly, understanding it, and bending it to your will.

It’s totally worth it though. Guns of Gettysburg for me stands alongside top-of-the-line games of any genre and shows the potential of the game not just as as an interesting and engaging hobby but as a truly expressive form. For me it joins games like Modern Art, Beowulf, Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, Sekigahara, Rommel in the Desert, and Ashen Stars – skillfully-executed games that have great and compelling game systems that serve narrative purpose and are fully melded to the presentation of interesting, relevant, and enlightening ideas. Games like this are the reason I’m in this hobby, and a joy to discover.

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Gettysburg: Badges of Courage

Gettysburg: Badges of Courage is a game that although I like, I’ve developed a few reservations about. On the one hand, it’s an absolutely great system, simple, yet it does a good job of emphasizing command and control, and it produces a lot of excitement. On the other hand, there were always a few details that didn’t seem to work quite right – the way the Confederacy could get hung up in Gettysburg, but once they broke through the Union had a heck of a time setting up a viable defense line on the hills which provided so little cover. Or the unrealistic way artillery was always being brought up to the front lines for point-blank fire.

Fortunately, Columbia has tried to address these issues with a simple set of “experimental” rules, rules that slightly increase the defensive value of hills, make artillery a little more vulnerable at close range, and weaken the defensive value of Gettysburg by weakening the streams. It all works very cleanly and it seems like just the level of change required to bring the game into line.

In our game, I played the Union, Charles the Confederates.

Buford had his usual bad luck defending Seminary Ridge, with lucky shots shattering both cavalry brigades at only a minimal slowdown to the Confederates. The Iron Brigade deployed into Gettysburg, but as expected the terrain was much less favorable and their flank was quickly turned and they were forced to retreat to Cemetery Ridge. A Union counterattack on the Confederate right flank threatened to annihilate a couple isolated brigades and artillery, but was stalled out not so much due to resistance as to sheer incompetence – of the 24 dice thrown over three turns of action needing a 1 or a 2 to hit, only one hit was scored. 6 precious command steps down the drain. One of the big changes in the new rules is that artillery that is too close to enemy infantry can be directly targeted by fire, which is extremely dangerous, but only if you occasionally roll hits.

On balance, the first day progressed much as it always does – the Union getting disorganized and driven back, while Confederate units drive hard and take only incremental casualties – but it did so in a more satisfying manner. The Union is still hard-pressed, but they have a substantially more viable defense line at the ridge. The Confederates can still drive hard, but they can’t wheel their plentiful and powerful artillery up to point-blank range with impunity as they could before. The Union will still be hard-pressed to actually win (as will the Confederates – the game was really designed to be played for two full game-days), but they have an outside shot – I was sitting on 4VPs as late as 7PM.

As I say, I have always liked Gettysburg, even if it couldn’t quite deliver on the outstanding early impression, and it seems like the rules tweaks might really help with a few of the technical issues. Assuming they do, the main remaining obstacle is just how long it takes to play, 6-8 hours probably for the two days to get a really satisfying game, which to me means two sessions. I still wish Columbia could provide some sensible victory conditions for the one-day game so you aren’t more or less forced to continue to the second day. I’d suggest that if you split the difference (7VP is a draw, more or less is a Confederate or Union victory), that feels about right with the new rules. Previously, the Union was desperate just to keep the VP count below 10 on the first day; now it seems like things are a bit more reasonable.

Gettysburg

After our last game, one thing I was slightly uneasy about was the relative mobility of artillery units. It seemed like artillery was too easy to use as short-range infantry gun type weapons, wheeling them right up to the front line to blast enemy positions, with no reason to use them as the long-range support that was their historical role. Fortunately, there is an optional rule for “column movement” that sounded like it should correct this minor issue, so Carl & I decided to use it this time. Since I had the Union last time, I got the Confederates this time.

As a word of advice to players playing this game for the first time, you really should play the game without this rule. I think it does help give the game a more historical feel, but it also changes the game dramatically and does make movement decisions a lot more complicated. Generally, it now is a lot harder to reposition troops. While in our first game the attacking Confederates could comparatively easily turn flanks and redeploy across the battlefield, it’s a much more painstaking and time-consuming process when they have to switch between line and column formations and can’t stack in column. Another big difference is that Buford’s cavalry has a much more meaningful chance to delay the Confederate onslaught long enough for the Union to set up strong defensive positions in Gettysburg itself.

Which is what happened in our game. The off-road terrain in the north-west corner of the battlefield is tough going, so Hill’s advance on Gettysburg can be rather slow if Buford opts to delay. Meanwhile, the Iron Brigade and others from the first batch of reinforcements were piling into Gettysburg, which is a strong position (due more to the streams & woods than to the city itself). Faced with the unappealing prospect of blasting through the city itself, and with reinforcements arriving later along the north board edge, I extended the flank to the east towards Benner Hill. This worked reasonably well in terms of extending the Union line, but in terms of winning the game, this is not the way to go. There is only one VP that can reasonably be taken to the East – Benner Hill – while in the South you’ve got the gimme at the Peach Orchard which I never took, plus then 3 more that you can threaten.

You need 5 VP to not lose the first day as the Confederates. This means you realistically need the Lutheran Seminary, Gettysburg itself, plus either the Peach Orchard or Benner Hill and to inflict one more shattered unit than you lose. While Benner Hill is attractive, in the end I think the Peach Orchard is the better extra VP to go for since it has easy access to more VPs than Benner Hill. The column rules make it very tough, though. It’s a long march to the Peach Orchard, and the Union is much more likely to beat you to Gettysburg in force, requiring a massive assault to evict him.

The real strength of the Confederates, though, is their ability to do those massive assaults. Because of their monolithic command structure, they are more or less incapable of doing smaller, more scattered division-level offensives. I found this out when I detached a single division to move south; it’s attack stalled out almost immediately and the Corps commander (Hill) was too preoccupied with the situation at Gettysburg to get the attack restarted. The Union, with their much smaller Corps, are much better at these small actions. So if you’re going to attack as the Confederates, make it a big one.

The bottom line on why my Confederates came up short, though, was that I didn’t pay enough attention to keeping low-strength units out of the firing line and rebuilding them. As a result, I lost at least one extra shattered unit which was the difference. The 1VP for losing a unit is very, very big, as I said last time, and you have to be careful because these lost VPs realistically cannot be made up by taking more terrain. I might also complain about my final assault on Benner Hill which by rights really should have shattered at least two Union units, but came up appallingly short on the dice – but like most of these games, there are a lot of dice, and you win some and you lose some in that respect. Nothing I could have done about that, but I definitely lost at least one unit I shouldn’t have, and that was the margin. As the Confederates it seems you need to have that elusive, Montgomery-esque combination of aggressiveness and risk-aversion. The dice are going to go south occasionally, and you have to be careful not to put yourself in a position where that’s going to cost you a unit or two.

OK, last thing, and having played twice now my only gripe about the game is the graphics on the mapboard. We had a heck of a time figuring out when the woods are or are not supposed to be hexside terrain. When it goes right up to the hexside? When it’s clearly on both sides? The rules are mum on this point and there is significant ambiguity at times. I had originally gone with the “clearly on both sides” interpretation, but I think it retrospect that the “goes right up to the edge” is correct. Nothing players can’t work out, and it’s going to crop up at worst only occasionally – but this is a significant oversight in the rules and the board should be better.

So anyway, I quite enjoyed the game again, and still like it. Despite not being complicated, it’s still a big, substantial game and is going to take a while to play. Nice for a change from the the more modest-length stuff Columbia has been doing of late, but if you’re a Hammer fan bear in mind that this will take twice as long to play just the first day. It’s worth it though. I’ll be curious to see what the playing time settles down to on this one. We’ve been doing about 6 hours for one day, which is a bit on the high side I think, it would be nice to do one day in 2-3 hours. I’m not sure how practical that target is, though.

Gettysburg

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.