Review: The Guns of Gettysburg
Thrower: Ow. Ouch! Unhand me, you oaf! That’s my authentic American Civil War facial hair.
Brendan: Sorry, I thought it was a badger.
Thrower: This month sees the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, often cited as the turning point of the civil war. To celebrate, I’m participating in an ultrarealistic re-enactment, playing the part of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. You missed the first two days. I’m whiling away this third morning while my troops assemble playing this new wargame on the battle, The Guns of Gettysburg.
Brendan: That’s pretty.
Thrower: It’s more than pretty. It’s absolutely beautiful.
Look at the lovely geometry of those wooden blocks, the subtle period intricacies of the map art and the interplay between the two as your units march forth, battling on your behalf. But the game doesn’t just look beautiful. It plays beautifully too. This, Brendan, is a Bowen Simmons game.
Brendan: Bodhran who?
Thrower: Bowen is the deranged uncle of wargame design, a quiet genius who beavers away silently for years before unleashing creations of breathtaking innovation. Game design usually just builds on what has gone before. But Bowen’s titles seem to come fully formed from nowhere, packed to the gunwales with new ideas.
He has a particular brilliance for shoehorning historical detail into simple mechanics, creating simulations that aren’t bogged down with rules. Every gamer should play one of his games, just to see what real creativity looks like in a world dominated by soulless copycat worker placement titles.
Brendan: There’s a funny smell in here.
Thrower: That’s me. I haven’t washed in weeks, to help make it an authentic re-creation of Gettysburg. Now I’ll be honest, I’d like to teach you this game, but it’s tough to get to grips with.
Brendan: Oh, well! That’s a sha–
Thrower: Of course, the rules aren’t actually that complex, but Bowen’s preference for procedural games means small misunderstandings can have a huge impact on play. When combined with the sheer unfamiliarity of his designs, this creates a steep learning curve. But sit down, take a view over the battlefield, and I’ll try to explain. Would you like some refreshment?
Brendan: …OK then.
Thrower: In keeping with the spirit of the time, here’s some tepid coffee and a weevil-infested biscuit.
Bowen’s games are all about movement and facing. Even attacking is just a convoluted form of movement where you have to push the enemy out of the way to get where you want to go. But push too far, leave your flanks and rear vulnerable and you’ll suddenly be in a world of pain yourself. The game rewards deep strategic thinking and careful co-ordination of mutually supporting troops. It’s hard work, but hugely rewarding. Your decisions count, because there are no dice.
Brendan: No dice? You sure this is a game and not some military-themed commemorative art?
Thrower: Ah, but the strange and wonderful mind of Bowen Simmons sees beyond mere dice for his arbiters of fate. There’s a quite brilliant system of artillery tokens which inject uncertainty into proceedings while magically simulating differences in ammunition supply and unit organisation between the two armies. And your troop strength is hidden from your opponent, so you’re not always sure what you’re attacking. Between all this, the game stays deliciously tense.
Brendan: Matt, there’s… erm, a large group of rough-looking fellas gathering outside the tent.
Thrower: That’s Longstreet’s corps, They look rough because they’ve been awake for 48 hours straight in the name of realism, but they’re fine men and are assembling for a charge on the Union line. After which they’ll be Longstreet’s corpses instead. But I digress! The very deterministic combat system does have one problem: almost all the blocks start with strength two. So early in the game, when you’ve got plenty of artillery, battles can be very predictable.
But in another clever Simmons’ twist, damaged blocks don’t lose strength at a fixed rate, but degrade unpredictably, modelling variations in troop quality between units. Also, some artillery tokens are removed while others get reused. The game rapidly becomes brutally capricious. But you’re still in command and there’s still no dice so when things go wrong and your troops are left shattered and bleeding all over the terrain, there’s little to blame but your own bad choices.
Thrower: Harsh but utterly wonderful. You’ll be completely absorbed by the intricate dance of those little wooden blocks on that lovely green board. Other gamers may lean in and mock the fact you’ve been playing for two hours and only have six pieces on the board, but you won’t care! You’ll have transcended their petty concerns, soared above their feeble area control titles: because you’re playing a Bowen Simmons game, and it will become your entire world.
Brendan: You’re dribbling again, here’s an authentic oily gun rag. Look, can we wind back to the two hours and six pieces thing? Seriously?
Thrower: Ah, don’t be fooled! Games rarely last over four hours. The actual battle involved a slow build-up of troops, and to give the game variety, Bowen made this gradual influx of reinforcements random. It can cause problems, such as seeing the entire Confederate army facing two paltry Union cavalry brigades. And there’s always that time it takes two hours to get any troops at all. But mostly it works, keeping you on your toes, making best use of the terrain, ensuring the battle takes a new shape whenever you play.
Ah, here’s my runner; report, lad?
Runner: Sir! General Longstreet says that he’s been a soldier all his life, and should know, as well as anyone, what soldiers can do. It’s his opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arranged for battle can take that position, sir!
Thrower: Tell him he’s a bloody wuss, and he’s going to charge. Dismissed!
No backbone, these Dixies. Now, if you want to re-create the actual battle, just as we’re trying to do on the field today, there’s a historical re-enforcement schedule to use and some detailed optional rules. And if you do, the lines have a tendency to form the famous Gettysburg fishhook formation. That’s a great test of historical accuracy! But let us not forget, Brendan. We’re gamers. And as a game The Guns of Gettysburg is hard, heavy and completely beguiling: a thing of stunning beauty.
Brendan: So everyone should play it?
Thrower: I said everyone should play a Bowen Simmons game: I prefer his previous offering, Napoleon’s Triumph. Gettysburg has minor issues that aren’t there in the earlier game, which also takes an hour less to play. But it’s out of print and colossally expensive, whereas Gettysburg just hit the shelves at a sensible price, and is still a wonderful game.
Right, the line is ready: grab some binoculars. You’re about to witness an authentic recreation of the high water mark of the Confederacy and some stunning pyrotechnics from the Union artillery.
Brendan: Whoa! That was certainly an authentic looking dismemberment! Realistic screaming too. Even looks like there’s blood spatter on the lens here … wait … this is … actually blood?
Thrower: Oh look, that ball scythed right through a whole platoon! SO MANY LIMBS! Just you wait until they get close enough for grapeshot.
Brendan: I think I’m going to be sick.
Thrower: Weevils not agree with you? Shame, they’re full of protein. Now, are you going to sit up here simulating warfare with The Guns of Gettysburg, or put on a uniform, get out there and live it? The boys are going to need some replacements very shortly. Off to the latrine first, clear your bowels? Fair enough. I’ll load your rifle ready for when you get back.
[The Guns of Gettysburg is currently unavailable from Amazon. But it IS available from Leisure Games here in the UK, the official Mercury Games site for our American friends, and Histogame for you classy Europeans.]