Friday, 16 October 2020


The Game

The Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest one during the American Civil War. It took place over 3 days - 1 to 3 Jul 1863. The American Civil War was fought for 4 years, 1861 to 1865, so Gettysburg was at the mid point of the war. In the early war, the Confederates (south) won many battles. However the Union (north) had a stronger economy and could last longer if the war dragged on. Also the Union soldiers had been improving and were becoming a better match. The Confederates wanted to score more big victories on the battlefield, in order to put political pressure on the Union to negotiate peace. So the Confederates brought the fight to the Union. Initially there were not many soldiers from either side near the town of Gettysburg. As fighting started, more and more soldiers rushed to the scene, and the battle grew to be one involving more than 150,000 soldiers. The Confederates pushed the Union out of the town of Gettysburg, and forced it into a defensive line shaped like a fish hook. As the fighting dragged on, neither side was able to break through. On the third day, the Confederates launched a massive assault hoping to push through and route the Union. This was the famous Pickett's Charge. Unfortunately for them the charge failed. The Confederates hoped to lure the Union into counter-attacking, but the Union did not take the bait. Eventually the Confederates decided to retreat, and that ended the battle. 

Gettysburg is a Martin Wallace design from 2010. At the time he was still running Treefrog. I recently noticed Allen had this game, and we hadn't played it. I suggested we should. Gettysburg is somewhat similar to Waterloo, also part of the Treefrog line-up. I have played Waterloo and I found the rules rather confusing and unintuitive. When I read the rules for Gettysburg, I struggled too. However, now that I have made a rule summary for it and played one game, I find it easier and more manageable than Waterloo

This was the situation in the early game. There weren't many soldiers on the board yet. The Confederates had a good concentration of units at the top right. The Union had a unit in the town of Gettysburg, and some units scattered at different locations. 

During game setup, most units are placed on this reinforcement chart. This chart specifies when reinforcements arrive, and where they enter the board. The Confederates are grey, and the Union blue. The black soldiers are elite Confederate infantry, while the orange soldiers are inferior Union infantry. The Union has one elite infantry unit, and it is already on the board at the start of the game, guarding Gettysburg. 

Each player has eight command blocks like this, numbered 2 to 5, two blocks in each number. To do anything on the game board, you need to have played a command block. The game is divided into three days, and each day is further divided into four phases - morning, midday, afternoon and night. By the end of the third day, if the Confederates fail to capture two victory points, the Union wins. At any time when the Confederates capture two victory points, they win immediately. 

On your turn, you have three options - play a command block, remove a command block, or play an order disc. A command block being present allows you to play an order disc, and playing an order disc allows you to activate your soldiers in the area or in an adjacent area to perform an action. The number on a command block determines how many order discs can be played, before the command block is exhausted and automatically removed. When a command block is removed, the order discs are released back to your pool. The command block is temporarily set aside. You need to have played all eight of your command blocks before exhausted command blocks are returned to your hand. 

This area has a #3 command block, which means it can allow up to three order discs. By now two order discs have been played. When you play an order disc, you issue an order to your soldiers in the area or in an adjacent area. You may order them to march, assault, fire artillery, entrench themselves, remove disruption, reinforce one another and so on. The order disc mechanism works slightly differently between the Confederates and the Union, simulating the better organisation of the Confederates. The Confederates always have many order discs and will not run out unless you are playing badly. Every phase of a day they usually have at least two opportunities to play two order discs back-to-back. This is equivalent to throwing a double punch, and it is very powerful. The Union has a limited number of order discs and they have to be managed carefully. At the end of a phase, if there are too many of its order discs remaining on the board, and it doesn't have enough free order discs for the next phase, it is forced to use black discs in lieu of order discs. Black discs are forced pass discs, which have to be played but do not activate troops. 

Battle resolution in Gettysburg is more complicated than the average Eurogame, but it is not so by wargame standards. When an assault happens, defending artillery and infantry fire first. If the attackers suffer any injury, they have to do a morale check. This morale check may result in some attackers retreating or even dying. If any attackers remain, they now get to shoot. If the defenders take any damage, they then do a morale check too. Fighting is done for two rounds, after which the attackers must retreat if any defender remains. Shooting and morale checks are resolved by die rolls. You have to look up battle resolution tables. Various factors affect the results, e.g. whether the troops are elite units, whether the troops have taken injury, whether the defenders are entrenched, whether the defenders are on high ground, and whether the defenders are being flanked. You need to take into account all these factors and try to create situations beneficial to your soldiers. 

The Play

This is a 2-player battle game. Both Allen and I were new to it. I played the Union (blue) and Allen the Confederates (grey). The last time we played an American Civil War game we did Lincoln, also a Martin Wallace game. I played the Confederates then, so this time we swapped. 

In the early game, the Confederates had a concentration of troops at the upper right, while Union troops were scattered here and there. I (Union) had two cavalry units (dark blue kneeling soldiers) and one artillery unit near the Confederate troops. There were only two cavalry units in the whole game and both belonged to the Union. Cavalry units have a special ability. When they are to take hits, they can automatically retreat to cancel one hit. Also when they do such retreats, they can bring along artillery units. So my plan was to not spend any action activating them. I would let them get attacked and then retreat automatically. That way I would save actions. I wanted to spend my actions getting other units to assemble near Gettysburg, so that they could make a united stand. Soon I realised I had forgotten an important rule. For cavalry to auto-retreat, they needed a command block nearby. 

I had hurriedly placed a command block to allow my cavalry units to auto-retreat. At this point that cavalry unit on the left had been attacked and had taken hits (blue cubes). 

Eventually I failed to save my units near the Confederate entry point. One cavalry unit and one artillery unit had been destroyed, and the other cavalry unit was now surrounded. My other units rushed to Gettysburg and prepared to make a stand. In this game the stacking limit is four units per area. 

Last photo taken before my cavalry unit was destroyed. 

Allen captured Gettysburg by playing two back-to-back order discs. Units defending in a town is at a big disadvantage. In hindsight I should have vacated the town sooner. At this point, my first batch of reinforcements was rushing towards Gettysburg. 

These were my early game casualties. Losing three artillery units was painful. The red soldier was my only elite infantry unit. 

The stars are the victory points. Triangles are hills, and domes are ridges. Hills and ridges affect the range and line of sight of artillery units. Brown cylinders are disruption markers. When units suffer from disruption, they can't fully vacate the area they are in. At least one unit will be left behind. They are also less effective in battle.  

This was still the afternoon of Day 1. The four white rectangles along the bottom of the board represent the four phases of a day. My (Union) order discs were below the third rectangle, i.e. the afternoon phase. We were re-enacting history. The Confederates had taken the town of Gettysburg, and the Union was making a stand just outside of the town. 

We were in the night phase now. We could not do assaults and we could not fire artillery. Basically no fighting at night. We could only move troops around or do entrenchment. Entrenchment is important for defenders because it makes their positions stronger in defence. In our game I did not do any entrenchment at all, because I was worried about getting flanked. If entrenched units get attacked from a direction other than where they are entrenched against, they suffer a disadvantage in battle. Entrenchment is best when you have a long solid defence line and you can't be easily flanked. 

In the photo above you can see that Allen had captured one victory point. He had many artillery units poised to bombard my units. At this point my plan was to bring my own artillery units to the front to bombard the victory point area he had captured. I wanted to soften his troops up so that I could assault and retake the victory point area. 

This was the morning of Day 2. Allen had six artillery units around the town of Gettysburg. Many of my troops had gathered around the victory point area he held. Since it was a hill, my troops were mostly out of the line of sight of his artillery units. So they were safe from bombardment. However my infantry units on the hill at the lower right were in their line of sight. Four of his artillery units could take aim at them. This was not good. 

I positioned my infantry units near the victory point area, preparing to assault once my artillery did enough damage to Allen's defenders. 

Allen had two artillery units in Gettysburg. 

I had reinforcements along the edge of the board, ready to support. Since there was a stacking limit of four, it wasn't exactly easy to move them to the front and move injured front liners backwards. 

I did not have many artillery units, and despite firing at Cemetery Hill (centre) many times, they did not cause much damage. Allen's artillery units were much more successful when firing at my troops on Culp's Hill (lower right). 

At the lower right, Allen's troops had now captured Culp's Hill. My two infantry units there had taken heavy losses from his artillery bombardment, and I moved them backwards, leaving a vacuum. My plan was to lure him in, then use fresh troops to attack him. What I miscalculated was he could move in four units and not just two, because of his double orders. Attacking four units was much more difficult. 

The white cylinders are artillery smoke. When artillery units fire, they produce smoke, and this smoke makes them targetable by enemy artillery units. Normally artillery units can only fire at infantry and cavalry units. Whenever your artillery units fire, you need to be prepared that they may now be shot at by enemy artillery units.  

Now that Allen had captured two victory points, I had little choice. I must recapture one victory point before the end of the phase. I had to launch assaults. So we didn't have Pickett's Charge in our game. Instead it was the Union which launched an almost suicidal attack. 

Unfortunately I failed in my assaults, and Allen rewrote history. After the game, we both agreed that the Union should not have retreated from Culp's Hill at the bottom right, despite the heavy losses. After all I still had many soldiers rushing to the scene and I could afford the losses. Many of Allen's soldiers were further away and would require more actions to be moved to the frontline. The other problem was I didn't make good use of entrenchment. It would have helped me defend better and reduce losses.

We found out we had made a mistake on assaults. We had made some illegal and overly powerful assaults. Normally only two units can assault, so it is quite an iffy matter. Only the Confederates can use double orders to get four units to assault at the same time. This means entrenchment is quite powerful. 

The Thoughts

Gettysburg operates at two layers - the command blocks and order discs layer, and the actual actions on the map layer. The command system simulates the difference in capabilities between the Confederates and the Union. The Union is somewhat restricted and has to handle this aspect carefully, to avoid wasting actions. It is always under pressure to quickly use up command blocks deployed, so that order discs can be freed up. This results in few Union command blocks being in play at any one time. The Confederates do not suffer from this limitation. 

The command system also creates a timing aspect to the game. To start getting anything done anywhere on the board, it always takes two turns. One turn for placing a command block and another for placing an order disc. Once you have a command block, you can place order discs turn after turn to activate your troops, until the command block is used up. The higher numbered command blocks are more efficient, because after spending one turn placing it, you can spend the next five turns executing orders. 

The second layer of actual actions on the map include marching, fighting, bombarding and getting entrenched. Many factors affect how effectively your units fight, and you are constantly trying to create conditions beneficial to them. There is a fair bit to digest. It took us a few phases to get comfortable with the whole battle resolution procedure. 

The game mechanisms do a good representation of warfare of that age, so you feel engrossed. The setup, terrain and winning condition drive the players to behave like their historical counterparts. That can be good and bad. Good because of historical accuracy and the game feeling right. Bad because sometimes you wonder whether decisions are already made for you and you are just following a script. Are you playing the game or is the game playing you? Is there enough replayability? I think despite a natural tendency for that fishhook defence line to form around the victory point areas, there is still some variability due to how each assault and artillery bombardment can turn out differently. You need to adjust and replan accordingly. There is still variability within the overarching strategic situation. 

The Union will play defensively, making full use of defensive tactics, since it has no time pressure. It also needs to play carefully and manage the disadvantages imposed on it. The Confederates are the fun and aggressive side to play, but the onus is on them to capture two victory points before time runs out. 

This is not a game you want to play many times repeatedly. It is the same battle after all, with a fixed setup. It is good to bring out once in a while, to relive and possibly change this turning point battle in the American Civil War. 


CJ said...

I fondly remember learning about and visiting Gettysburg in middle school. I can't say that I would enjoy playing this game but appreciate your thorough review of it!

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

That must have been a very memorable experience, visiting a famous battlefield. I once had a chance to visit the Sekigahara battlefield. I am a big fan of the game. However I eventually decided to skip it because it was rather out of the way with not many tourist spots nearby. It was a family trip so I wanted to pick destinations that my family would enjoy too.