So you want to be a wargamer? Skip the plinky-dinky and go with Gettysburg

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Ask a wargamer for a list of “introductory” wargames, and you’ll inevitably get a list of games that look remarkably like the games that person first played when starting in the hobby. Regardless of release date, these games have hexes, a limited number of units, and simple combat results tables, usually odds-based but sometimes just using differentials. The idea seems to be that if you just peel off all the special movement and overrun and supply rules, the simplest things for a new player to master are simply a bunch of hex-based combinatorial exercises.

The problem is that this looks at introductory wargaming from the perspective of a veteran, who has already assimilated the whole wargaming paradigm of force concentration and plinky-dinky factor counting, so stripping off all the “chrome” leaves a simply math puzzle that any grognard can immediately recognize. Unfortunately, for most normal people, the idea of arranging a bunch of chits so that exactly 21 “combat factors” are adjacent to that hex while another 14 are adjacent to that hex, while having to stay within the limits of a different “movement factor” printed on each unit seems like an impossible (and unpalatable) cardboard combat crossword, never mind trying to figure out what it all means. The Battle of the Bulge? What does that have to do with fitting two or three units in a hex that have numbers adding up to twelve?

If you ask Mark Herman what an introductory wargame is, you get a very concise and coherent answer.

Herman’s Gettysburg design, published in Rodger MacGowan’s c3i Magazine #32 (along with Frédéric Bey’s Battle of Issy 1815, which is a splendid little game and the reason wargamers should buy the magazine) wants you to know three things about Civil War combat, and more specifically, the battle of Gettysburg. The first is that units marched quickly but battled slowly. The second is that combat was a chancy thing at best. The last is that America’s most famous battle was all about gaining position.

Note how nowhere in there does it say that Heth’s and Pender’s divisions had a good chance of defeating the Union I Corps because their attack strengths add up to nine and the I Corps has a defense of three, which is 3:1 odds, but if you put Anderson’s division in there instead you only get eight to three which is 2:1 and so if you roll a “6” you can get an “Attacker Eliminated” result.

Instead, Herman dispenses with combat strengths entirely. Each unit just has a movement factor, which is 4 for infantry and 6 for cavalry (on the front) and 1 (on the back). This is because units can only move their full movement allowance when in march formation, and when they come within two hexes of an enemy unit, they must flip to battle formation, and a movement allowance of 1.

Couple this with the fact that players alternate moving one unit at a time, and that units can move multiple times a turn, and you have a quick-playing, back-and-forth game of maneuver. The game is only six turns long, and the map is small enough to fit in a magazine, folded once. The Army of Northern Virginia comes in from the northwest, and needs to maneuver the Army of the Potomac out of its blocking position across its line of march, or fight through it. Since units are moved in alternation, as your opponent moves, you will find different possibilities than existed just one move ago. Units must stop and move no further on turn when they move adjacent to an enemy unit.  The turn ends when one of the players passes and his or her opponent has had the chance to make a variable number of “end of turn” moves in response. Then combat happens.

Combat in Gettysburg is a high-variance affair, as the result depends on a competitive die roll, modified by some factors like terrain and adjacency. Some combat units have quality ratings that give them a bonus to the die roll, so there is a sort of “combat factor” in there somewhere. To ensure that no one ever quite knows who is going to win, there is a mechanism for artillery support wherein each player secretly chooses whether or not he or she will commit artillery. If they both do, there is yet another dice-off to determine who will get the +2 modifier for artillery support. Combat results are determined by the difference between these modified die rolls, so you can probably imagine the roller coaster ride from where you’re sitting now.

It’s all very light and breezy. The first time you play, you’ll marvel at how historically driven the play feels, for a number of reasons organic to the design. I think this is one of the best things you can say about a historical game. Every subsequent time, you’ll be annoyed at the dice.

There is something to be said, though, for a game that tries to introduce players to wargaming by playing like history, rather than playing like arithmetic dressed up in a history costume. The best games (like the previously reviewed Empire of the Sun) give players historical decisions to make in the course of gameplay because the design drives gameplay along historical lines, not because the rules decree it, but because they do such a good job of assimilating those considerations into an organic structure. I can see how players interested in the “whys” of military history might appreciate a simplicity that brings certain basic factors into sharp relief. Gettysburg does this reasonably well, and for that alone, it’s worth a play or two.

The downside to this complexity ceiling is that as a game, Gettysburg doesn’t have much to offer experienced players after a few passes. Old Avalon Hill classics, because of their computational complexity, could be played to a very high level of skill. Watching the Stalingrad tournament at Origins was like watching some virtuosos of strange algebra create an almost incomprehensible symphony out of simplicity and long division. Gettysburg, on the other hand, will be driven by the infamous competitive d-sixes, and after a few games, you’ll get the historical flow under your belt and games will be driven by whatever combination of die roll successes and failures transform the battlefield.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Herman is designing a whole set of games based on this series, to be published by GMT Games as Rebel Fury: Five Battles from the Campaigns of Chancellorsville and Chickamauga. They will all use the Gettysburg system, so I expect them all to have something to say about how the battles were fought positionally, and less to say about everything else. While I’m pretty much done with Gettysburg, I’ve pre-ordered Rebel Fury and look forward to seeing how these well-known Civil War battles play out in this ruleset. For all its simplicity, Gettysburg does have a feeling of historical verisimilitude absent from such “classics” as Waterloo and Stalingrad. The question is, would you rather play a competitive but ahistorical game, or a historical but uncompetitive one. Since I haven’t played an Avalon Hill classic in probably thirty years, I guess this is a rhetorical question.

I often get asked what would be a “good game to introduce someone to wargaming.” My answer usually is that if the person is interested in wargaming, you should just take them to The Compleat Strategist in New York and point them at the wargame shelf and let them pick something out that interests them. If they like it, they’re going to be a wargamer, if not, it doesn’t matter what you recommend. My second game was Third Reich, which we played wrong for about a year before we even realized it. We were ten, so give us a break. But it absorbed us because we loved the way it tried to put history in our hands. It’s this that I think back to when I throw up my hands at the question I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph. But there also might be a group of people who want to play wargames, but need to dip a toe in the water first. If they’re really interested in history, Gettysburg should work just fine.