Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Review: Gettysburg: Lee's Greatest Gamble

When there have been a dozen or so games on the exact same topic you need to have something new to say about it if you expect to get any attention. Designer Chris Perello's Gettysburg: Lee's Greatest Gamble does take a new look at the often-simulated 1863 Civil War battle.

The issue game in Command Magazine No. 17, LGG physically is the usual high standard expected of XTR in 1992. It has a useful Mark Simonitch map and 1/2-inch counters make a return after several issues of the magazine that had the 5/8-inch counters. The counters use full-color icons of soldiers and cannon with the federal troops on light blue and the confederates in butternut.Units are brigades, each hex represents 1/5-mile and turns represent about 90 minutes during the daytime and four hours at night.

Unusually for a Command Magazine game LGG does not use some variation of the standard wargame mechanics but instead uses a novel game system. Infantry and cavalry units are rated for their ability to survive losses, a combat rating and a morale rating. Artillery units also have morale, but also are rated for range, offensive support and defensive support.

The turn sequence is straightforward, with a command control phase, movement phase and combat phase for each player, with the Confederates moving first.

Every good wargame design focuses on certain key elements of the event that the designer wants to highlight. In LGG Perello looks at three elements of the battle in a new way compared to previous designs.

First are the victory conditions. There are no victory points for holding Cemetery Hill or Little Round Top or other sites. The objective for both armies is to destroy its opponent. The only other way to score points is for Lee's army to exit the army trains off the edge of the map. This prevents the Union from simply sitting on some hill top and letting the rebels march on by. The map also extends further east than is typical for Gettysburg games, including the Low Dutch Road area that saw a cavalry action on July 3. Both players therefore have considerable freedom to experiment with different maneuvers and if fighting tends to develop around places such as Seminary Ridge, Little Round Top and Culp's Hill it's not because the designer forces it, but it's because these locations are "good ground," as Gen. Buford put it in the movie Gettysburg.

The second departure from the usual is the combat system. While there are a lot of modifiers and special rules, the essential feature of the combat system is duels between brigades. In Perello's view there was no way under the tactics of the time for superior numbers to be directly applied to an attack. Instead superior numbers meant there were fresh troops to try again, but each actual fight was a brigade on brigade struggle. An optional (but recommended) rule for counterattacks helps recreate the back-and-forth nature of Civil War firefights.

Rather than using combat factors alone, the system looks at morale as equally important. Larger brigades are less likely to be eliminated, but no more likely to hold a position or take one.

Finally, LGG looks at the pacing of the combat. One of the most common problems in wargames is unreal pace of operations. Because cardboard counters do not get tired, confused or frightened too much tends to happen too fast. Although the battle stretched over three days, Perello points out the actual fighting occurred over just a few hours of that time. In particular, most of the second and third days were quiet time. Perello simulates this by having each army in one of four levels of command control, based on a die roll. At the highest, and most difficult to achieve "attack" state, units can move and attack without restriction. In "restricted" state units cannot move next to enemy units unless there is already a friendly unit adjacent to that enemy. This allows existing attacks to continue but effectively prevents a new one from starting. When the army is in a "passive" state units are not allowed to move next to enemy units at all, although units already adjacent may still attack. Finally, in a "panic" state, in addition to not being allowed to move next to enemy units some units may be controlled by the opposing player! (Think of it as the Sickles rule).

Altogether LGG is enough different that it's worth trying, even if you have other Gettysburg titles.

With 18 pages of rules and a number of novel concepts this qualifies as a complex game, even by wargame standards, unusually so for a magazine wargame.

Despite its complexity and considerable number of turns (12 per day, with three days of battle and a portion of a fourth day possible) the game is still playable in one long sitting. Due to the command control rules many turns will pass with little activity.

Like most Gettysburg games setup time is minimal, as most units start off map. Organizing the reinforcements should take about 20 minutes if the counters are sorted.


(Yes) For Wargamers: An interesting take on the Battle of Gettysburg. Some of the same game concept reappear in a more elaborate form in Fateful Lightning.

(No) For Collectors: Nothing remarkable.

(No) For Euro gamers: Game play is intricate and detailed, even by war game standards, with some novel concepts on top of that.

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