Gettysburg’s Gettysburgs: A Boardgaming Life Review


By Paul Comben

 

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Let’s face it, some of us have had more than forty years of marching down the Chambersburg Pike, and we have all done it with great games, fair games…and the occasional piece of absolute rot. We have sought to take the high ground, defend the high ground, move around the high ground (if the map would let us), and fight out the great turning point of the Civil War with systems as variable as the holiday road works on the English M6.

How many Gettysburg games have there been since the late Fifties? God knows. What I am more certain of, however, is that plenty of us have played plenty of them; and like London buses, if you missed the last one, there will be another along in a minute – even if it is going somewhere you would rather not.  I cannot think of London without the buses, and I cannot think of the hobby without the Gettysburg games. So here is a run through of all the Gettysburg titles I have ever played; a celebration of a lifetime spent rolling the dice, losing Lee under something, and not understanding what any given rule actually meant.

And with that, I start in 1972… with something from 1964.

Gettysburg – Avalon Hill 1964.

pic89933_mdI was still twinkling away in my father’s eye at the time the hobby sprung into life with Tactics II and Gettysburg Mark I. I was very definitely around in 1964, when what would be my first Gettysburg became available; but for reasons largely linked to my extreme youth, (could not have read the rules and would probably have flicked the counters all over the place), I would not arrive at the hobby for a while yet. Instead, whilst the Beatles toured America and Petula Clark went Downtown (she never said exactly where, other than the lights did not work properly), I was quite happy with my fort and soldiers, watching Fireball XL5, and being terrified by Daleks.

But in 1972 my world changed – I got that 1964 Gettysburg for Christmas; and despite the fact that it had about as much link to historical realities as a dozy wasp, I was totally hooked. Many of us will have played this early version of the great battle, and perhaps because it is so old and sort of belongs to the hobby’s ”Dream Time” – surely just a euphemism for a stack of hapless tat – we feel under obligation to say something nice about it. Well, stuff that, because, despite my easily led childhood infatuation with the thing – I just felt I had to like it – it was rubbish. Looking back, I absolutely do not think anyone in the hobby thought of that early offering along the lines of: “Cor, that was really good, let’s do another!” The map was full of terrain features that did nothing – roads, rivers, woods, town, all of them sitting there like four drips in a flood, visible, but with no additional effect whatsoever. And then there were the leader counters, representing the most famous and infamous of the Gettysburg cast  – Lee, Longstreet, Hancock, Sickles, all of them just along for the ride; all of them with nothing to do but watch it all go wrong…or right…as the Army of Northern Virginia sought to achieve a victory condition that made Cannae’s result look positively marginal.

But more than anything else, there was that Combat Result Table – several grim rows of annihilating fury backed up by an odds calculator for those too thick to play the thing anyway. There is any number of ways I can present this process in its full glory, but this is my favorite:

Imagine it is the late evening of July 2nd 1863, and in his headquarters at some locale not shown on the map, Robert E Lee (all 0-8 of him), is in conversation with one of his divisional commanders – some bloke largely consisting of beard, boots and hat brim.

Lee: Sir, I have invited you here so I might enquire, with courtesy, as to what fate has befallen your command, of whom I have neither seen nor heard anything since my morning orders were delivered.

Beard: I dunno sir. There were my boys, this very afternoon, ready for the fight like they was born to it. I said to them, I said: “Boys, we may be outnumbered, but we got to take that hill… because beyond that hill is Washington, and then the sea, and then some more sea, and beyond that, Basingstoke, and then…”

Lee: Please general, by your good favour, I would consider it a kindness if you would confine yourself to the matter most presently at hand.

Beard: Well, my boys, all six thousand of ‘em, they went forward a-whoopin’ an’ a-yellin’, and there weren’t nothing, as I thought, that could prevail against them. And in that same moment, I did pause to look at the likeness of my intended…only when I looked up again, they was all gone.

Lee: Gone sir?

Beard: My boys. One moment they were there, in front of me, ready to raise hell, if you will pardon my intemperate language…and then they were not.

Lee: Sir, your division included some of the finest regiments in this army; regiments who have carried all before them on many a field of honour. I can in no way imagine that the entirety of their number and proven valor has been totally consumed in the briefest blinking of an eye.

Beard: Perhaps they is all hiding behind rocks? Should I make enquiries to that effect?

Lee: There are no rocks on this field sir, as it is presented to us on this map; and even if there were rocks, we would not notice them, as they would have no proper function. We must, I fear, consider your division as no longer of this world.

Beard: My boys!

Stuart enters:

Lee: General Stuart, I fear you are a little late for these present occasions.

Stuart: General Lee, I have brought you four hundred Yankee wagons.

Lee: We are beyond consideration of wagons now sir.

Stuart: The wagons are outside, if the general would but care to look.

Lee: I have no time for wagons now. This good gentleman has lost his entire command by a strange and unwelcome providence. Furthermore, may I impress upon you the gravity of our situation here, and that this rocking chair in which I am presently accommodated is most uncomfortable.

Stuart: (blubbing) I swear, you do never want to look at my wagons any more.

 

Terrible Swift Sword  – SPI /TSR

pic216381Big game, big rules, big number of units…and big questions on the morale front. This classic came along as a present to me for Christmas 1976, and I really thought it the business. To summarize the essential difference between this and the previous offering, everything here did something, and usually did it with a considerable amount of detail – what type of artillery a battery had; what firing piece the boys in the regiments had; leaders that could hold the boys together; town streets that could pull them apart again; roads, walls, slopes, streams, hills and other high ground that actually had a use…as well as wagons you could move around…and look at.

And yes, that Christmas Day I did nothing with it but look at it all with awe… though not quite so much awe as for the BBC’s traditional pop hits spectacular, which, somewhere dangerously close to the Queen’s Speech, featured several gorgeous and very scantily dressed young ladies making some moves to Abba’s Dancing Queen (not the same one, I hasten to add). Well, it was 1976, and times were different in the disaffected, misogynistic strike-filled wonderland that was the Britain I fondly remember from those days.

Anyway, I finally got the game set up for a full blast whilst my parents were off on holiday the following summer. One half of the lounge floor had my game on it, and the other half was where I did my entertaining – no girls you understand, just friends from school, who could look at my game, eat some crisps, wait for Match of the Day to come on (it was late August and the footie had restarted) and then go home. There was also an unscheduled visit from my aunt, uncle and cousins, who were amused to find my game on the floor and my washing in the kitchen – I cannot remember if I had any crisps left. But again, it was different times – spending near all day, every day, for close to a fortnight, fighting out Gettysburg with a game that really looked the part was a luxury then I could not indulge today.

Most importantly, for all the refinement and revision the TSS system has had over the years, I thought it was perfectly okay the first time around. I did not get any really odd things happening, the rules were solid, for a big game it played surprisingly easily, and I totally bought the battle world I was being offered. Perhaps those initial morale rules were overly simplistic, green regiments standing better than veteran, but at the level of the big picture, nothing really seemed twisted out of shape. It was a great game, and I never enjoyed any other title in the series as much as that one.

 

Gettysburg – Avalon Hill 1977.

pic243480_lgOh dear. Oh dear dear dear. This was an odd one, was it not? It was a hot day in the West End of London when I bought this wonder – wargaming’s answer to Pandora’s Box…and if Pandy ever wants it back, she is welcome to it. Three Gettysburgs in one box – a bad one, a not so bad one, and one that had ideas beyond its station. The map looked like a Painting-by-Numbers take on Monet’s garden pond; and to make matters worse, the beginner’s game counters looked like they had been designed by Ug the Caveman, and then been cut by his docile mammoth shortly before it froze to death.

This game package really was an object lesson in more sometimes being less. There was a sniff of a brilliant advanced game lurking in the box, but it was hard to conclude other than that trying to stuff two other games into the deal had twisted things out of shape and led to very little getting the attention it deserved. Today, if you think of a game of the battle using brigade frontages and a detailed breakdown of precise battery composition, you are going to think of something with a big map, high presentation quality, and the rules gone over with a fine toothcomb. Instead, Advanced Gettysburg struggled for room on a psychedelic table runner, with what looked like Ug’s rendering of mites blotted over the frontage counters, and important artillery information crushed into such a small space it was a total pain to read.

Many people have said the intermediate game, the one with just the brigade counter itself (no frontage extenders), was pretty good. Well it might have been compared to the other two, but nothing, to my mind, looked like it belonged on the map, the map looked like it should be in a different box, and the rules for the advanced game had more holes in them than the surviving banners of Pickett’s Virginian regiments.

 

Pickett’s Charge – Yaquinto 1980

pic51262In many ways, this was my Gettysburg of choice for much of the 1980s. It used a system similar to that seen in two other Yaquinto games – The Thin Red Line (Waterloo) and The Great Redoubt (Borodino). Changes here were about modeling the two armies in particular ways, true to a different era – such as the provision of dismounted cavalry. Happily, gone were the days of the boys going forward and then not so much as a kepi coming back. Losses and morale effects were recorded on roster sheets, fire and melee were carefully graduated, skirmishers went out from brigade pieces, wagons were there… again, leaders did a lot…or nothing, and it all played out rather well on what was yet another hideous mapsheet offering.

Gettysburg, as we all know, was fought out in the rolling green fields of the Pennsylvania countryside in the first days of July 1863 – very hot days by all accounts. But the map art did not put you in mind of Pennsylvania, or summer; rather, if you could have dotted it with shell holes it would have looked far more like an aerial interpretation of Passchendaele by Georges Braque. It was all insipid greens and ugly browns – it did not set a mood (well it did, but not the one you would want); it did not help the game by creating an initial “wow,” (more an initial and lingering eurrgh), and the annoying thing is, the game would have looked an absolute treat on a map with a lighter palette, a few named houses, a suggestion of fields and fences – only it did not. If not Passchendaele, the other likeness that springs to mind is where Macbeth met the three witches and decided to be a very silly Scot. And why it had to have line of sight dots is anyone’s guess – nothing could fire more than a handful of hexes, and if you could not work out what could see what at that spacing, you needed help of another kind.

But the map aside, the one weakness that carried over from the two Napoleonic offerings was the command rules. These rather looked like an idea without refinement, with spurious “down the chain” die rolls to see who was alert (and often hardly anyone was); and with much dependent on having a commander who was not resting under the shade of the trees waiting for inspiration, things got stuck off the map, on the edge of the map, or left hanging around further in like they were waiting for their horse to come back. I left these command rules well out of it, and instead got on with enjoying a game that was, like many others, all about those famous places of renown as nothing else had been included on the map.

And that’s the cue for another evening visit to Lee’s headquarters.

Major Taylor: Does the general require assistance with anything?

Lee (peering at map): I must confess that I am having difficulty with this particular piece of cartography.

Major Taylor: May I ask in what way, sir?

Lee: I am trying to ascertain reasons for the delay in our seeing General Stuart.  All I am able to deduce from this map, that has some truly peculiar aspects to it, is that he may have been frustrated in his progress by these considerable expanses of brown sodden ground. Has it been raining that hard?

Major Taylor: No sir. Outside it is as hot and dry as the bleached bones of an Appalachian wildcat in summer…pray forgive me sir, for I do beg the general’s pardon for my immodest language.

Lee: I thought I heard rain falling on the roof.

Major Taylor: Beggin’ your pardon sir, that was the general’s chair squeakin’ on the floor.

 

Gettysburg: High Tide of the Confederacy – Phoenix 1982.

pic173995_mdBasic in appearance, this was still a fair representation of the battle at brigade level, using, as I recall, a system very similar in feel to a fairly decent 3W game, Forward to Richmond. The two main negatives were tied up with the scope of the map, which offered the Confederates no maneuver room at all, and when tied to a heavy dose of “Hindenburg Line” breastworks on the Union position, sometimes led to a game that descended into a pounding attritional disappointment.

But that basic appearance notwithstanding, with unit graphics looking like men each carrying a badly damaged garden fork, I am yet to be convinced that the game’s map was not used at the very beginning (or end) of one of those grand old US television shows we ended up forever stuck with in England – you know the one, of course you do: it had that dah diddy dah diddy diddy diddy dah music and then the map caught fire and the title Bonanza! popped up.

 

Devil’s Den – Avalon Hill Version, 1984/5

pic479826_mdWe all have them in our collection, games that have not gone through the ratings roof – may not have even reached the ratings light bulb – but we like them…even if not many others do.

This is a different beast to anything presented thus far – not the whole of Gettysburg, but the assault on Devil’s Den and Little Round Top. With its regimental commanders, snipers, demolished rail fences and altogether rather nifty map for its time, this was a very tasty bit of kit. Of course, you could get fussy about the lack of skirmishers and the overall presentation of the regiments, but this was a game with plenty of colour, and none better than the Whitworth rifle-armed rebels taking to the rocks of Devil’s Den and loosing pot shots at the Little Round Top’s defenders.

Integral to the whole picture was the officers out there with the boys – the better ones, like Joshua Chamberlain, had plenty of command points to spend on up-close fightin’, movin’, shootin’ and scootin’ (if necessary)…others you just wished would get a ball through the beard and replaced by someone who might just be a tad better.

This really is a game to look out for secondhand – do not fret about what it has not got, enjoy what it does have in bucketloads.

 

Gettysburg – Avalon Hill 1988.

pic216372Oh dear god, not another one! I mean, third time around and still Avalon Hill cannot produce a Gettysburg that is going somewhere good. But then again, they never did a Waterloo worth mentioning either. This Gettysburg, of course, was tied up with some anniversary thing, and thus came in a big box full of not very much. Others may disagree, but for me this was merely 1964 Gettysburg tweaked a bit. The ironic thing is, you are supposed to remember anniversaries, but this design, for me, was instantly forgettable.

 

 

Thunder at the Crossroads – The Gamers 1988 & 1993.

pic361578_lgNow we are talking! Two things make either edition of this game stand out: it had that wonderful orders system, and it had a map you could actually shift forces about on.

Part of the Civil War Brigade Series, this design, along with its predecessors and the many that came after, was proof that you did not need a great mass of rules and complexity to do a very nice piece of simulation design. And even if you still had a level of omniscience as you watched your opponent “up to something,” there was no guarantee you could respond adequately because orders had to be written, delivered, and acted upon, before anything went anywhere.  The system was never perfect, and a bit of fudging with the working of orders was occasionally necessary. But with that spirit, you really did get a battlefield command experience, including lulls, unwanted retreats, beards going in the wrong direction, or in no direction at all.

Scale of the series was about two hundred yards a hex, and the pieces brigades with front extenders working very neatly.  If you have never played one of these games, you really should. They will give you more insight than many a bigger and purportedly more detailed work.

One other thing worth mentioning was the lack of breastworks. Unlike not a few other games, where Cemetery Ridge and Hill could end up looking like something Model ran into at Kursk, the rationale in place here left out the use of breastworks altogether – the argument being they were too insubstantial to be of any real use at this stage of the war; and of course, from the gameplay point of view, having a big army disappear under a line of works was an utter pain. There were also no modifiers for woods, as it was argued that regiments did not go lurking behind the cover of tree trunks, but simply lined up and blasted away at hideously lethal ranges. Eventually, the rules got changed a bit to allow rudimentary works in woods hexes, but that was about it. What you really wanted was high ground with a nice clear field of fire in front – festooning your enemy with dead leaves and pine cones was not part of the deal.

And now, back to Bobby Lee.

Lee: (looking at his watch) It has now been several hours since I expressed a preference to General Longbeard and his divisional gentlemen, Lookatthat McWhiskers and Some Hat, to drive the enemy’s people away from possession of that hill yonder. So I am mystified Major, that we have heard none of our artillery firing, nor any report of musketry.

Major Taylor: General Longbeard is but a little way off. We could ride to him sir, to impress the need for immediate action while we still have some advantage of the time.

Lee: No sir. Your zeal and impetuosity are understandable, but nevertheless General Longbeard is a most thorough gentleman, and will doubtlessly attack as soon as his preparation is complete.

Major Taylor: But it’s getting dark sir. I have already been bitten by some cussed midges, which is about all the action I have seen since this morning when the general’s tent fell down.  Excuse me my language sir, but my heart is aching for the attack.

Lee: You are a young man Major Taylor, and have yet to acquire the entire lesson of patience. I learnt this in my earlier career, waiting for something to move in Mexico, and then found the same an inestimable help when General Jackson insisted on reading the entire bible to me whilst peeling a lemon.

(he pauses)

Lee: Is there any fresh report of that brave man’s condition?

Major Taylor: Who sir?

Lee: Our good Stonewall.

Major Taylor: He’s dead, general.

Lee: Again? So soon after the last time? Why, how that man has suffered for our country. I am in awe sir, I do confess, in awe.

Major Taylor: (raising his field glass) I think General Longbeard is moving!

Lee: No sir. I consider it at this stage the more likely that he is merely adjusting his contemplative posture.

Major Taylor: Yep. Now he’s sittin’ down agin.

Lee: I fear General Longbeard is now finished for the day. I shall retire to my chair and await his report. What news is there of Jackson?

Major Taylor: He’s dead sir.

Lee: Then I have lost my right hand.

Major Taylor: It’s there under your coat, holding onto your watch.

 

They Met at Gettysburg – Spearhead Games 1996

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is another example of a game that did not get much love around the hobby, but which I rather liked. Designed by Peter Perla, it used its own adaption of the Storm Over Arnhem/Turning Point Stalingrad etc. system to render the battle in a different sort of way. The map was reasonably attractive, with the presentation of fields and individual buildings; and with off map zones, there was a form of maneuvering room.

Some people did complain of a propensity for gamey tactics with this design – killer stacks and stuff like that. I just liked it as a fun game – nice enough components and so on; though I did think the designer’s Bloodiest Day design, using the same system, was rather better.

Peter did do a thorough re-write of the rules some time after publication. They are worth using, but they are not necessary just to enjoy the game on the level it was intended to suit.

 

Gettysburg 1863 – Avalanche Press 2002.

pic117576It remains one of the great mysteries of the hobby, that a company capable of producing some very nice unit graphics could also produce maps, at least in the past, that looked like box packaging. Austerlitz springs to that mind in that regard – beautiful counters, albeit nearly illegible, sitting on a map that looked like chipped polystyrene floating in a river.

So, no surprises that the Gettysburg map here is an unappealing disappointment, to be bested by anything drawn by a pirate with a length of burnt stick. Rick Barber did an alternative version, which, from what I have seen of it, is totally stunning – as just about all his map work is. And the game itself is not bad – buckets of dice, serious step reduction, and pretty clean play. In short, another game I insist on liking, and thus bucking the trend of accumulated adverse opinion. And in fairness, the map, although bad, is not in the same league of overall hideousness as the thing(s) used in Avalanche’s Napoleon in the Desert – more like Napoleon in the Dessert (tiramisu) if I am being blunt.

 

Gettysburg Badges of Courage – Columbia 2004

pic79480_lgSince doing this game Columbia have done a Shiloh and a Borodino, both with a somewhat similar system. The big difference with the Gettysburg is that it has a hex grid map, (the others have areas), which is a bit of a pain if truth be told. In particular, quite apart from crowded hexes, determining terrain on hex sides, empty or not, is not always easy.

As for the actual game, it is a pretty decent effort, with all the plusses of most Columbia fare in that it has a very short set of rules and yet the action seems very much in the right sort of frame. Of course, unless you have an opponent you are a bit stuffed, this being a block game, though I did try it once solitaire and had a surprisingly enjoyable time.

Strongest point is that it all works so nicely with very little to learn.

 

Gettysburg – Treefrog 2010.

pic653616Bought this game as a bit of a punt a few years back: Brit design here…one of the lads, one of the boys, bit of red, white and blue…go on, get the board out, lay out the wood, and get playing!

Believe me, this is a remarkable bit of work – looks like a “toy,” plays like a dream, and all with a short and reasonably complete rule set.

Do not be put off by the meeples, or the simple map – it all works together in a highly innovative way. Command is by blocks that are placed on the board as an order “source.” You might think of these blocks as a key commander and his staff working with variable effect just behind the line. The actual order “currency” they dispense is by disc – no discs, no orders. The Union player is hampered by a couple of things – lack of elite units and dummy discs. The dummy discs crop up if the Union player is too profligate with commands, forcing him/her to accept discs that do nothing but count towards the total available.

However, my favourite rule is the one that only permits artillery to fire at enemy artillery if the target has disclosed itself. This is such a simple thing, but it captures the essence of the care Porter Alexander took in the “concealed” arrangement of the Confederate artillery on the third day of Gettysburg – something that was done with the utmost consideration…and then went utterly wrong.

If you can find this in any decent condition anywhere, get hold of it and do not let go.

 

The Guns of Gettysburg – Mercury 2013.

Another of Rachel Simmons’ simple, complicated games.  I covered this in detail in another article for The Boardgaming Life, so I will not say much here. This is clever, daring design, but you may not find it to your taste if you really want unit counters, rules with a familiar feel to them, and units marching down the well- trodden roads at the usual time. If you want a touch of the radical however, this is one amazing game.

 

Last Chance for Victory – Multi-man Publishing 2014.

pic1875530As big as any earlier “monster” on the battle, but with the claim of being easier and quicker to play than many.

Integral to the game (part of the Line of Battle series) is a large amount of designer perspective worked into a substantial part of the game – essentially, to establish a realistic Gettysburg environment, shorn, as the designer would have it, of many of the old hand-me-down assumptions. And all of this is fine and dandy, and I for one certainly welcome anything with a different look at things, combined with quality components and the thoughts of a very good designer in Dean Essig.

It’s just that, well, after all that intense design work looking for the battle’s fundamental truths, the lovingly crafted package then came the way of the wonderful Enrico Viglino, who, for all the scripting, then managed to get those legendary armies to perform a sort of semi do-se-do (and I for one am still trying to work it all out) whereby they went swirling round the hallowed ground like it was the last chair left to be sat on before the music stopped.

Well, that is one way of playing it; but this is an exciting project nonetheless, and I could not consider myself up with the Gettysburg state of the art without it. Look for those who have played this game and really got to know it – I trust their opinion will be as favourable as mine. There are some fiddly aspects, such as in the handling of artillery, but this is a game of massive scope and potential.

Enjoy.

But now, thinking of that epic Calandale playthrough, (and I hope the hobby understands what a real gem it has in him and his many videos), let us visit R E Lee one last time…..

Major Taylor: Is the general feeling a little unwell?

Lee: I fear the exertion is proving too much for my decaying form.

(he points vaguely in front of him) Is that our headquarters far yonder?

Major Taylor: No sir, it is but a little behind us.

Lee: And what of the hill I wrote to General Longbeard and Hairy Heth about? I still consider it most imperative to our success here.

Major Taylor: Sir, you are standing on it.

Lee: Then we have prevailed?

Major Taylor: Rotated might be the more apposite term, general.

Lee: And what of those people?

Major Taylor: Those are our boys, sir.

Lee: Then where is the enemy?

Major Taylor: Where we were, sir.

Lee: So we are?

Major Taylor: Where we were not, general.

Lee: I will admit to sensing some confusion here. Whose wagons are those, there behind that field?

Major Taylor: Those are enemy wagons.

Lee: They must be taken. Where is General Stuart?

Major Taylor: General, where we never were in the first place.

Lee: And what of our gallant Stone-dead Jackson?

Major Taylor: He’s dead sir.

Lee: I shall miss his bible readings.

Major Taylor: I won’t.

 

About the Author

Paul

Paul has been involved in the hobby since the early 1970s. Of largely Belgian ancestry on his father’s side, and English (Yorkshire) on his mother’s, after finishing his education he worked in tourism and student services, and also spent some time in the former West Germany. He met his wife Boo in 1990, and they married a couple of years later.

 Paul hails from a long line of former servicemen – one grandfather was a sergeant in the BEF of 1914, whilst two of his great grandfathers were killed serving with the Royal Navy. His own father, who was born in Britain, served with the army in Malaya in the early 1950s.