Friday, June 21, 2013

A good thing it's called Cemetery Hill, because it sure ain't Gettysburg

Starting setup for the Decision Games edition
The Blue & Gray system was a passably authentic depiction of civil war battles at the introductory level that was very popular in the 1970s under SPI and was updated with some changes by Decision Games a couple of decades later.

Originally published as folios and quad games, the system operated under some severe constraints as far as components went, but it really wasn't half bad most of the time and most of the time a judicious use of special rules and set ups would provide something remotely close to the actual event.

The conventional wisdom is that Cemetery Hill represented the weakest entry in the series and in this case the conventional wisdom is correct. Many were surprised when Decision games redid the Blue & Gray quad that the battle they dropped in order to make room for the Bull Run battles  was Antietam instead of Cemetery Hill.

At the root of Cemetery Hill's problems was the ill-advised decision to depict the order of battle at the division scale (or half-division in the case of the Rebels) instead of the brigade level used for every other Blue & Gray game. While this was perhaps an understandable, if incorrect, decision when SPI published it as a folio, kit was a very poor decision when Decision Games re-issued the game in a boxed edition where the same constraints did not apply. Gettysburg was a large battle -- the largest ever fought in North America, actually, and a B&G treatment of it at the brigade level might have been interesting.

Instead we have a clunky division level game with huge combat factors.

Compounding the problem is a peculiar treatment of terrain. Urban combat was very rare in the Civil War, and the few times it did occur, such as at Gettysburg, provided no evidence that defending a town represented much of an advantage. But Cemetery Hill makes the Town of Gettysb urg into an inportant fortress-like defensive position that will always figure in the Union player's plans.

Likewise the game provides triple defense for defenders of Cemetery Hill, Culp's Hill and the Round tops -- an astounding upgrade of some pretty unspectacular elevations a few dozen meters above the surrounding countryside.

Finally, the game starts at a strange time for a Gettysburg game -- around 2 p.m. on July 1st just as Ewell;s corps was about to rout the hapless XI Corps. One suspects that this was done to finesse that the game couldn't really cope with the swirling action of the morning and early afternoon of July 1st as designed.

So what we're left with is a game that fails to develop in an authentically plausible way to depict the Battle of Gettysburg with very little chance of the historic "fishhook" developing or events resembling Longstreet's offensives.

This might have been acceptable if the result was at least an interesting game, but here, too, Cemetery Hill falls short. The online game site provides Win-Loss stats for Cemetery Hill along with other games it offers and those statistics reveal that the game is severely imbalanced in favor of the Union side, with the Blue beating the Gray almost 2-1. Interestingly it doesn't matter whether the game is played with the classic SPI-era rules or the modified Decision Games version (with the "attacker ineffectiveness" rules),

As of late June, 2013, the Union players won 2,002 of the 3,080 games played under the new rules, for a winning percentage of 65%. This is essentially the same as the classic rules, where Union players won 977 of 1,559 games played, or 63%.

The outcome of the game depends enormously on how well the first couple of CSA attacks go against the federal XI Corps. If they go well, then the South can have a shot at victory, but if they go badly, one might as well just start over, with suggests that the better design choice would have been to start the game even later and just give Lee credit for beating Howard.

With a number of new games out depicting the Battle of Gettysburg as its 150th anniversary approaches there's little reason to revisit Cemetery Hill as part of your commemorations. It's very appropriate that it was called Cemetery Hill, because it isn't much of a Battle of Gettysburg game. 

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