Thursday, June 20, 2013

Is it a gamble because there are dice? Lee's Greatest Gamble

Set up for Gettysburg: Lee's Greatest Gamble
The approach of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and the appearance of some games explicitly tied to that commemoration such as The Guns of Gettysburg and Gettysburg 150 prompted me to re-look at some of my old collection before I tackled the new stuff.

Interestingly, Gettysburg: Lee's Greatest Gamble pioneered one of the notable mechanics of The Guns of Gettysburg, army postures.

Based on the army's "posture," the ability of units to move and fight are affected to some degree or other. The motivation behind this regimen is to account for the peculiar fact that -- although the battle occurred over three days that July -- nearly all the fighting was concentrated within a few violent hours on each day. Indeed, it's a very notable aspect of the battle, especially on its second and third days. It took most of July 2nd for Longstreet to organize his flank attack and the arrival of nightfall did as much to end its chances of success as the arrival of Union reserves.

Lee's Greatest Gamble was one of the first games that made a serious effort to graphic with that problem and most serious wargames about the battle since then have tried to find some way to model the large periods of inactivity that marked the fight.

In The Guns of Gettysburg the armies choose between Attack, Hold and Withdrawal general orders, which generally have the effects you'd expect from their names. In Lee's Greatest Gamble there are four postures, Attack, Restricted, Passive and Panic which are, perhaps, a little less intuitively named but similarly affect what the player can do. The main difference between the two approaches is that The Guns of Gettysburg game places the army status under player control and gives a player incentives for choosing each while LGG makes it subject to the vagaries of the die. This die-based approach has the advantage of making one of the results "Panic" which provides a possibility of the opposing player taking temporary control of part of the army. This rather neatly accounts for some of the bad battlefield decisions of the actual fight such as Barlow's advance to Barlow's Knoll and Sickle's advance of III Corps.

A drawback of the die-based approach, besides the obvious reduction in player control, is that a bad series of die rolls can prevent the two armies from fighting at all. Errata mitigated it to some extent, but it's still a possibility even after the errata. This is a significant drawback to game with the time investment of LGG and enough to keep me from being willing to make that investment.

I'm not sure whether Bowen Simmons, designer of The Guns of Gettysburg, is familiar with LGG or whether he derived any inspiration from the earlier game, but I think his implementation is superior in concept. As a general rule, I dislike "idiot rules" that force players to do or not do things instead of providing them incentives. It's both more realistic and more satisfying from a player's point of view to give him a reason to delay making an attack than simply banning him from the act. In the actual event there were reasons why thing occurred as they did and while it may not be possible to recapture all those reasons, it's superior to have a reason for things to happen or not happen.

Still, LGG broke some fascinating new ground and it was interesting to look at it again as I pondered whether any old titles needed to be re-evaluated as the 150th anniversary neared.

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