“History Distilled to Its Essence” – #FirstImpression of @markherman54’s Gettysburg (@RBMStudio1, 2018) in C3i Magazine Issue Nr 32 (with a s/o to @tomandmary too)

I was quite taken with the thing. I think it plays to the strengths of the small game format while avoiding the pitfalls, and I highly recommend it. (Tom Russell, Hollandazed Blog for 21 Dec 2018)

I have to agree with Tom Russell (@tomandmary from Hollandspiele Games). Gettysburg, the first in what looks to be a new series of simple wargames published by RBM Studio in their flagship C3i Magazine is a small footprint, rules-lite product that delivers tremendously challenging choices. It might be a small looking game, but it is large on making decisions interesting.

At first glance, Gettysburg seems to have little to offer. You play on a single 11″x17″ map with only 26(!) counters. Rules are in a large-font 12-page Rule Book. [Take out the cover, Player Aid on the back cover, and three pages of graphics and one is left with seven (7!) pages of actual rules.] There are only six turns, each representing a half-day. However, after playing Gettysburg one quickly discovers that designer Mark Herman (@markherman54) was not exaggerating when he subtitled the Rule Book as Gettysburg: History Distilled to Its Essence.

Mr. Herman accomplishes this design feat by focusing on few tried-and-true wargame mechanisms while adding several innovative(?) wrinkles. The first wargame trope Mr. Herman relies upon is the Zone of Control (ZoC). In Gettysburg, every unit exerts a ZoC into the six hexes around it. Like most wargames, when a unit enters an enemy ZoC it must stop and cannot move any further during the Movement Phase. To any traditional wargamer this is old hat; dare I say “boring?”

The interesting wrinkle introduced is the concept of Zone of Influence (ZoI). A ZoI is all hexes within two of the unit. Now, I am sure ZoI has been used in other games but in Gettysburg the effect of ZoI makes me take notice. Units starting the Movement Phase outside of an enemy ZoC or ZoI are turned to their speedier March Formation side. Units can move at their March Formation speed until they enter an enemy ZoI – at which point they have to flip to their much slower Battle Formation side. Now movement is interesting; there is no dashing right up to the enemy!

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Game in progress

At the same time he uses ZoC and ZoI, Mr. Herman mixes in another old school gaming trope, I go, you go (IGO UGO), but turns it on its head. As expected, players alternate taking actions in the Movement or Attack Phase until one player passes. But, instead of letting the second player continue until they finally want to pass, the non-passing player rolls a die and adds the number of friendly units outside of an enemy ZoC. The modified result is the number of remaining Move Actions that player has. Similarly, in the Attack Phase, once a player passes, an unmodified die roll is made with the result being the remaining number of attacks possible. The passing die roll reasonably reflects the problems of Command & Control in the days of the American Civil War. Sometimes commanders get what they want; other times the fickle hand of fate interferes.

In the Attack Phase, Gettysburg becomes a bit less traditional. First , there is no Combat Results Table (CRT) in the game. Instead, players make a series of competitive die rolls with the modified difference creating the combat result. Modifiers to combat are few and easy to remember; Artillery Support is a +2, Defensible Terrain is +2, any stars on the unit counter are a positive modifier, and if attacking with more than two units in the defender’s ZoC there is another +2. After rolling dice and applying modifies, the difference can range from Stalemate to Retreat to Blown (off the map to possibly return two turns later) to Eliminated. Although the combat resolution is not traditional, the simple rules capture the essence (where have I seen that word?) of combat results in the American Civil War.

The interaction of the basic ZoC, the extended ZoI, and a “traditional” IGO UGO turn sequence with an different “passing” mechanism combines with easy no-CRT combat resolution mean the “simple” rules of Gettysburg create huge decision space. As Tom Russell relates in his blog post:

The moment one of the players passes is a hinge point upon which the tempo of the phase turns. Suddenly the order in which I move my dudes matters. Because the Union position is largely defensive, I find that they’re more likely to pass first, which creates a situation in which the hitherto orderly Confederates are suddenly forced to improvise. What I had intended to be coordinated assaults all up and down the line become hodge-podge little affairs.

Gettysburg the battle was a huge affair. As Bruce Catton wrote in the Encounter at Gettysburg chapter of his book Never Call Retreat (Phoenix Press, 1965),

The commanding generals never meant to fight at Gettysburg. The armies met there by accident, led together by the turns of the roads they followed. When they touched, they began to fight, because the tension was so high the first contact snapped it, and once begun the fight was uncontrollable. What the generals intended ceased to matter; each man had to cope with what he got, which was the most momentous battle of the war. (p. 178-179).

Gettysburg the game delivers what it promises; a simple wargame that captures the essence of the battle – those hodge-podge little affairs that the generals never wanted but which you the player need to cope with. In Gettysburg Mr. Herman has distilled the battle to its essentials, and the resulting game is a master-class example of making a small, streamlined title that delivers an outsized, replayable experience.

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