Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Cemetery Hill -- Review and strategy

Cemetery Hill, the Blue & Gray quad game treatment of the Battle of Gettysburg, originally published in 1975 by SPI and republished 20 years later by Decision Games in a revised edition in 1995, had long had a reputation as one of the least successful of the series.

Units from both editions, Decision Games (1995) on top, SPI (1975) below,
Union left, Rebel right.
The Union forces are an infantry division, and cavalry and artillery brigades. The Rebel units are the two counters comprising Heth's division and F. Lee's brigade on its "ineffective" side.

Unlike all the other Blue & Gray games, which are at the brigade level, Cemetery Hill is at the division level. This was due to the particular production restrictions of the Quad game format, which allowed for no more than 100 counters. Gettysburg was simply too big a battle to fit using brigades, so the scale was bumped up to division level -- at least for the Union side. The problem with division-level Gettysburg games is that the Confederates didn't have many divisions on the field -- just 9 total -- which really doesn't give them enough maneuver units. The Rebel divisions were generally very large anyway, with 4 or five brigades except for Pickett, who had just 3 present. In contrast all the federal divisions had just 2 or 3 brigades. So in Cemetery Hill the Rebel divisions all get two counters.

Still, doubling or tripling the scale of the game units changes the character of the game considerably compared to the other quad, especially because the stacking limit was not adjusted accordingly, so some very high-factor stacks are possible. In addition there is a lot of terrain that doubles and even triples combat factors, so some hexes can have some pretty impressive totals.

Gettysburg is a very difficult battle to simulate, especially for a simple wargame, although that hasn't stopped many from trying, ever since first history-based wargame, Avalon Hill's Gettysburg. The basic problem with simulating Gettysburg is that the battle was characterized by periods of very intense fighting separated by long periods of inactivity. There were many reasons for this, but they mostly revolved around command and control issues that simple games usually pass over, so most simpler Gettysburg games see a lot more continuous action than the historical battle. Cemetery Hill is no exception.

While limited as a simulation, Cemetery Hill is not a bad game, providing some interesting choices for the game player -- although it is a bit harder for the Rebels.

The game begins at a later point than most Gettysburg games, in the afternoon just before Ewell's attack on the U.S. Eleventh Corps that sent the federal line reeling back to Cemetery Hill. The key for CSA success is to recognize that your side is winning the race to the battlefield -- but will eventually be outnumbered. Relentless aggression is your only hope to prevail. With some luck and skillful play the Confederates can rock the Union army back on its heels and never give it a chance to recover.

Conversely, the Union player is trying to buy time and avoid losing too many units in the early going. Patience will pay off for the federal side. There will be plenty of time to inflict losses on the Confederate side once the whole Union hosts gathers. The victory point awards favor the Union, with each eliminated US factor worth 2 VPs to the CSA and each eliminated Confederate worth 3 to the Union side, so the Union can "Exchange" its way to victory.Map detail from the The SPI edition showing Gettysburg and Seminary Ridge

There are some differences between the original SPI edition and the Decision Games version. As was depressingly common with its re-issued SPI games, Decision Games introduced some errors in the reprint as well as making some changes.

From a rules standpoint, the biggest difference between the two games is the Attacker Effectiveness rule, which is optional in the original SPI version and a standard rule in the Decision Games version. Oddly, the Attacker Effectiveness rule was first introduced in Cemetery Hill, but many players believe it shouldn't be used in Cemetery Hill because it works against the Confederates too much.

My experience is that the Confederates can succeed using the AE rule at about the same rate as they do without it, so I think the pro-Union bias has more to do with the victory conditions and the general game situation. Indeed, I think the Confederate side is the more challenging side to play in all Gettysburg games. While the attacker effectiveness rule does hinder the attacker in some ways, it can also be exploited. Unlike all the other Blue & Gray games there is a high proportion of night turns (when ineffective attackers recover) to day turns. The game begins with 1 and half turns of activity, then a night turn; then four turns of daylight followed by night, then four more turns of daylight and one of night, ending with two turns of daylight. So ineffective units will have up to three opportunities to come back. In all other Blue & Gray games there's at most one chance to come back, and there are many more daylight runs on both sides of the night turn if it exists.

One critical errata to incorporate to make this true, however, is to treat Turn 3 as a Night turn in the Decision Games edition. It's a night turn in the SPI edition and there's no reason to think that it's any different in the DG edition.

There are also some map changes between the SPI version and the Decision Games version. The DG edition adds a new terrain type, "broken," to signify the terrain that triples defenders. The SPI edition rather clumsily simply printed right on the map the words "Defender TRIPLED in this hex" on the affected hexes (Cemetery Hill, Culp's Hill, Wolf Hill, Little Round Top and Round Top). This doesn't change play, but is more aesthetic. The DG edition also prints the setup locations of the starting units on the map, which is an aid to set-up.

The DG edition also opens up the map a little on Seminary Ridge and Powers Hill by changing some hexes from Forest-Rough to simply Rough. This reduces the movement cost of the hexes from 6 movement points to 3. The affected hexes are 0908, 0409, 0410, 0901, 0902 and 1516.

The DG also has some other mistakes on the map, one minor and two major. The minor error is that the Roman numerals on two XI Corps units are transposed. The first major error is that the Union 1st Division, III Corps unit is left off the map. As this is a 19-factor unit, the Union will definitely miss it, so be sure to place it in hex 0423. The other major error is that hex 2112 is not indicated as a Union reinforcement hex, which it is.

Detail of the Decision Games map showing the Gettysburg vicinity uses the DG map for its presentation of the game, although it offers the option to play without the Attacker Effectiveness rule as a "Classic" edition of Blue & Gray. This is not an exact replica of the SPI version, though, because it uses the revised DG map.

The other differences between the two editions are cosmetic. The DG map uses superior graphics and the DG edition uses troop icons instead of the anachronistic NATO-style units symbols used in the SPI edition.

The DG edition includes three optional rules -- Strategic Movement, Cavalry Movement and Cavalry Retreat -- that should not be used in Cemetery Hill as they will throw off the game balance significantly. All favor the Union player.

I have a slight preference for the DG edition, as I like the Attacker Effectiveness rule, but I play the game both ways on and own both the DG version and the SPI version as afolio game.


  1. Nice analysis! This is good to see differences between two versions of one game. I just own the SPI version.
    Counters are still not perfect on the DG version, they just have been refreshed. I like better the big figure of the SPI version. It is more logical to put the movement factor, I don't understand why DG didn't make the same choice on their S&T issue on Lest Darkness Fall, there was plenty of room on their big counter.
    From an aesthetic point of view the SPI map is still beautiful.
    I keep discovering your blog-

  2. I've also noticed that the DG version has a rule 8.12 pertaining to stacked units--``The phasing player may attack with only one of the units if he so chooses and not attack at all with the other." This contradicts 8.0 which says that all of the phasing player's units which are in enemy ZOC's must attack". What's your take on this? FWIW, I just ignore 8.12 and play according to 8.0

  3. The Hexwar ruling s that 8.12 takes precedence as it is a specific case modifyingt he general rule of 8.0, which I believe is correct.

  4. The unit chosen to 'not attack' in 8.19 should not suffer the consequences of a failed attack (AR,AE,EX). Otherwise, there is no good reason to have a unit 'not attack', voluntary odds reduction being available.