Thursday, October 24, 2013

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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