The week was a bit slow in Casa RockyMountainNavy. This is the first holiday we celebrated in our “new” nuclear family configuration since Eldest RMN Boy is in Tech School for the U.S. Air Farce. It also follows three months with the Mother-in-Law in town and a simultaneous major health challenge for Mrs. RMN (not COVID…but while the vaccine might of protected it appears it brought on other health issues). So we have much to be thankful for. For my part, much of the Christmas shopping is also complete, at least as the major presents for each RMN Boy and especially Mrs. RMN go.
Huzzah Hobbies, my FLGS, had a 50% off sale this weekend. I didn’t make it up there but the RMN Boys did and sent me a photo of the shelves and asked for suggestions. We’ll see if anything shows up under the tree this Christmas.
Recently, I tested the tolerance of my bosses and took my copy of No Motherland Without: North Korea in Crisis and Cold War by designer Dan Bullock from Compass Games to the office. My job is tangentially related to the game topic, so I figured I could come up with a good cover story to explain why I had it laid out on my desk. During the week I played the solitaire scenario during my lunch times. By the end of the week the game was finished and I had rediscovered the interesting insights No Motherland Without delivers while also showing my office the power of “serious gaming.”
No Motherland Without…another player
While No Motherland Without is technically a two-player game with one side playing North Korea and the other the West, designer Dan Bullock also includes a solitaire scenario. Here, the player plays the North Korean regime and the “solo bot” plays the West. Technically, I’m not sure you can actually call it a “bot” as the solitaire scenario rules lay out some exceptions and a decision flowchart for how to execute the West card play. Fortunately, the rules changes for the solitaire version are not too numerous and are both easy to learn and implement. All told my play of a complete 7-turn solitaire game took about two hours of lunch times.
The solitaire decision flowchart in No Motherland Without very clearly focuses the West on three priorities; place Outages to hinder infrastructure building, placement and movement of Defector Routes and Defectors, and Investment of Action Points for future use. It is a good guide to strategy for West players.
In my solo game of No Motherland Without the single most important event was not a Missile Test (though there were two—both successful) but the event “Thailand Tightens Its Borders.” This card is an Enduring Event meaning it goes on the three-card track and stays in play until three other Enduring Events are played and it gets “pushed” into the discard pile. The game effect is the removal the Defector Routes in Thailand and a prohibition for the West to use Activities to rebuild the route. This forces defectors to use the route through Mongolia which, although shorter than the Thailand route, has a 2-in-3 chance of the defector dying in the desert. In my game “Thailand Tightens Its Borders” came out early in the fifth turn and didn’t get pushed off the Enduring Events track until the last turn. This meant all defector attempts in turns 5-7 had to use the risky Mongolia route (in the last turn by rule all defectors must use the Mongolia route). By the end of the game a majority of the Final Turn (Kim Jong Un-era) generation was dead. Although the West had supported many defectors, through the Enduring Event card North Korea was able to gain favorable treatment from Thailand and it was enough to stem the flow of defectors—and the accumulation of Victory Points–to ensure a North Korean victory even without a final successful Missile Test to raise Prestige.
If one had any thoughts that No Motherland Without may provide some background as to why Korea has been an intractable problem for as long as it has this game offers no real policy insight. That said, No Motherland Without sets itself apart by showing the interrelation of many historical events from a very human perspective as the plight of defectors is prominently showcased. It’s an important perspective, just not very mainstream.
After my recent solo play of No Motherland Without I reconsidered my statement. The core conflict of the game, North Korea building infrastructure versus the West supporting defectors, is a policy statement. While North Korea gets plenty of worldwide attention for its missile and nuclear programs, it still must build a society for its people. On the other side, though support for defectors is usually the realm of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) rather than governments, it still can be a government policy (like is was in South Korea for a long time). This last year-plus of COVID, with it’s closed borders, has limited the flow of defectors. At the same time, North Korea, like many other countries, is trying to build better infrastructure for its populace (look at all the apartment building projects). Although they seemingly are disconnected now, once borders reopen we will see how “happy” the North Korean people are if Kim Jong Un can complete all those buildings, or if they will become his 21st century Ryugyong Hotel that sat unfinished for decades.
During the week my play of No Motherland Without got some attention in the office. At one end of the response spectrum, and by far the largest in number, were those who scoffed at somebody “playing a game” at the office. I responded to these folks by pointing out the history lessons in the game and the interesting perspective of the designer. Generally they seemed to accept my points, but often visibly remained doubtful. This group was also the ones to most often try to compare No Motherland Without to Risk or Monopoly(sigh).
A second smaller group of coworkers was able to look past the “game” of No Motherland Without and see the learning value. Some of these folks would casually flip through the cards and then look at the historical notes. While they learned, several were quick to point out that the randomness of the cards meant events could occur out of historical order, thereby making the game “incorrect.” To that criticism I responded by pointing out it was not the specific events but the situation in many cases that the cards capture, and while the events may happen “out of order” they still capture the essence of the flow of history vice a specific timeline. This group had a few gamers amongst its members, but it quickly became apparent that their preferred gaming was online and not very complex; indeed, more than one marveled at the “obvious” complexity of No Motherland Without.
One last, very small, group of my coworkers understood what No Motherland Without was trying to communicate. For one of them, when I explained the core conflict of infrastructure versus defectors you could see the “eureka” moment as they blinked and said, “Of course!.” With these few I had very serious conversations as to how an Event Card could be played or how the different Activities paid for in Action Points could be spent. One coworker wanted to take the game to their office to play and show their coworkers the insights from the game. Another who is well connected to several NGOs and the North Korean defector community really was interested in the game, although they pointed out that the ability to only play North Korea in the solo game may be “upsetting” to some. This small group was able to see the “serious gaming” potential of No Motherland Without as the designer’s core message is shown through game play.
Next – A Revolutionary Game…of waiting
Overall, I feel my “office-al” gaming was a success. I was planning to take designer Dan Bullock’s latest game, 1979: Revolution in Iran (The Dietz Foundation, 2021), into the office next and play that one. Belatedly I realized it does not have a solo mode! During the Kickstarter campaign Dan was asked about a solo module stretch goal to which he responded:
No Motherland Without features a solitaire scenario in addition to the two-player game. The solitaire scenario only allows you to play the role of the DPRK, but the West opponent is easy to control and challenging. Unfortunately, the event card draft makes 1979 difficult to adapt a solo bot. I tested a short solo scenario leading up to the Islamic Revolution, but ultimately scrapped it because it didn’t feel robust enough.
So, Dan, do y’all think you could share that scenario and let us see how it works? Maybe somebody out there can make it work better, or develop something else that does. Please? I need another title to play during lunch in the office…
The opinions and views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and are presented in a personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of any government or private agency or employer.
New Arrival – Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons by Jon Peterson (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2021). This is definitely a hobby business history and NOT a history of D&D as a game. So all you Edition Wars fighters out there looking for Jon’s vote need to look elsewhere. I wish Jon would do the history of Marc Miller and Traveller someday. I know, not as dramatic but nonetheless of intense interest to a Traveller RPG fan like me.
It took a few extra days but my hardcopy of the Compass Games catalog arrived. Several games are given “provisional” (my term) delivery dates which, alas, all are in 2022 (one actually doesn’t have even a provisional date—which is kinda worrisome). We’ll see how that works out! Now to mark the catalog up with already have, on order, and like to haves.
74 major Titles in catalog
6x Titles of Interest (3 available now)
I really need to be careful and not get too carried away with ordering from Compass right away. I already owe Mrs. RMN (aka “Family Accountant”) an explanation of why GMT Games and Canvas Temple Publishing are charging within days of each other. I also won a local auction for Sekigahara (GMT Games, 2011) that I’m picking up this weekend—only a week after Tapestry (Stonemaier Games, 2019) arrived…
I am hoping that GMT Games finds a way to get the four titles that are at “At the Printer- No Ship Date Yet” moving. The latest update from Gene tells me that Tank Duel Expansion 1: North Africa is in a container somewhere between China and California and will be charging early October. Hopefully this means that backlog will work off over the next few months. I look forward to a regular GMT P500 delivery schedule.
I might also be better informed if I watched the Compass Games Live / Town Hall on YouTube every week but it goes live at an inconvenient time for me to easily catch it. I have five titles on preorder form Compass and, as best I can tell, none are scheduled for delivery through the end of this year (deep sigh).
My lone Multi-Man Publishing title on preorder shows that the preorder goal was passed. I guess that means it is moving forward in production, but when that is remains a mystery to me.
The big boardgame industry news this week is that Asmodee is looking for a buyer...and they want 2 BILLION Euros. This past year+ of COVID certainly has seen the boardgame industry do well, but with the current raw material shortages and shipping challenges is it truly sustainable at those high levels? I almost feel like the VC group that owns Asmodee is trying to take their money and run. Remember, one of the oldest adages in business is“Buyer beware.”
Foundation and Role Playing Games
I rarely watch TV these days, but I did indulge in the first two episodes of Apple TV’s new series, Foundation:
I thought about rereading the books before the series started but I am glad I didn’t as I am looking at the series with (sorta) fresh eyes and just taking it in. I am especially enthralled with the world-building. I read articles about how the producers were trying to establish a look for the series that is neither Star Wars or Star Trek (Warning: Minor spoilers at the link). If I was put on the spot, I would say that there are many elements of Marc Miller’s Third Imperium setting for the Traveller roleplaying game. Or maybe it’s better to say there are many classic space opera elements in the Third Imperium and Foundation is just catching up. I have to admit I also enjoy watching the series with the RockyMountainNavy Boys who have not read the books (I know, Bad Dad!). They are taking it in without any preconceived notions. So far they like it, which is high praise from the hardcore Stars Wars fans they are.
From Foundation to Blade Runner
What’s this? Hot on the heels of ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game, Free League has announced publication of Bladerunner: The Roleplaying Game in 2022.
The core game and its line of expansions will push the boundaries of investigative gameplay in tabletop RPGs, giving players a range of tools to solve an array of cases far beyond retiring Replicants. Beyond the core casework, the RPG will both in setting and mechanics showcase key themes of Blade Runner – sci-fi action, corporate intrigue, existential character drama, and moral conflict – that challenge players to question your friends, empathize with your enemies, and explore the poisons and perseverance of hope and humanity during such inhumane times.
Bladerunner: The Roleplaying Game, The Game
Investigative RPG’s are an interesting subgenre of roleplaying games. Some game systems, like Gumshoe from Pelgrane Press, are designed from the ground up for investigations. Other systems rely on a form of “social combat” game mechanism to handle player vs. PC interactions. Indeed, The Expanse Roleplaying Game (Green Ronin, 2019) has a separate mode of play called Social Encounters that covers investigations. It will be interesting to see how Free League adapts the Year Zero Engine to handle Bladerunner-style investigations.
Although I didn’t totally enjoy ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game I am nonetheless happy to see Free League lean into the 1980’s sci-fi IPs and turn them into RPGs. Philip K. Dick’s short story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” was the basis for the movie Bladerunner and is a very deep story. I hope the game does real justice to the IP.
Out of the blue, this week a fellow local wargamer reached out and offered two games for sale. Thus, I now am the proud owner of two very near-mint copies of designer John Butterfield’s solitaire wargames D-Day at Omaha Beach (Decision Games, 4th Printing 2020) and Enemy Action: Ardennes (Compass Games, 2015). Both games are highly rated on BoardGameGeek coming in at Geek Ratings of 8.27 and 8.6 respectively. Indeed, D-Day at Omaha Beach is the #4 War Game on BGG with Enemy Action Ardennes coming in at #29 (which makes no sense given their ratings…but it’s BGG so who really knows how their ratings work?). Solitaire games are not my usual thing but I always liked the original RAF by Butterfield for West End Games back in 1986 so he has long been on my “approved” designer list.
COVID and Gaming
These two titles are the 46th and 47th gaming items to enter my collection this year. Looking at where each was “sourced” from the majority (20 of 47 or 42.5%) are Retail Purchases. The next major acquisition source is by Trade/Local Purchase with 17 of 47 (36%) Even if I combine Kickstarters and Pre-Orders together, I only get 9 of 47 (19%). When I did my “By the Numbers” year in review of 2020 I didn’t track acquisition source so I don’t have hard data for comparison. What I do know is that I have 24 items on Preorder/Kickstarter and maybe nine might already be delivered if there were no shipping delays from COVID. The bottom line is that COVID is altering my game purchase patterns with a greater focus on retail and local purchase/trade, usually of older titles. The dearth of Kickstarter/PreOrder delivery of new games is likely affecting those who suffer from Cult of the New by giving them withdrawal symptoms!
Shelf of Shame
With the new game arrivals my Shelf of Shame also continues to grow, adding an additional incentive NOT to purchase more games. Yeah, I’m one of those who WANT to play my games, not just admire the boxes on the shelf. I’m really falling far behind and need to get back to a Game of the Week approach to gaming. Alas, Real LifeTM continues to interrupt. My Shelf of Shame, in order from oldest to newest arrivals,is presently occupied by:
Speaking about throwbacks to old wargames, GMT Games announced this week that Jim Day’s next entry in the Panzer (Second Edition) series, Panzer: North Africa, has “made the cut” in their P500 program. Longtime readers might recall that Panzer (Yaquinto Publishing, 1979) was my very first wargame. I eagerly bought up the entire original series; Panzer, ’88’and Armor, and they still own a prominent spot on my gaming shelves. I am glad that after 40 years a “new” edition of ’88’ is coming.
As the name of the game foreshadows, Indian Ocean Region: South China Sea Vol. IIleaves the South China Sea “home waters” and moves to the Indian Ocean. China and the United States are still the two Global Powers, but now there are many more regional actors. The largest is, of course, India. For players that are US-centric (‘Merica!) the game might create a challenge because the “big kid” on this block is not the United States.
In no particular order, here are some thoughts on Indian Ocean Region that struck me during my Game of the Week experiences.
The counters for Indian Ocean Region are nice. They came shrink-wrapped which was a good thing because once the wrap came off the counters literally fell out of the sprue. They are so neatly cut I don’t think I need to corner-clip them. If this is the “new” standard from Compass Games I like it but beware—you need a plan to organize your counters before opening the shrink wrap because once opened the counters are falling randomly. Sorting will be from a random pile on the table not neatly out of the tree.
I do wish the colors of the counters in Indian Ocean Region had been a bit more distinct between nations. The camouflage pattern on the counters in this case actually works against them as various counters start “blending” into one another. In some wargaming forums, much has been made about several misprinted counters in Indian Ocean Region. My copy suffers from this problem where three USA ship counters are misprinted with the background for Oman. Truth be told, if I hadn’t seen the postings online I may have actually missed it because the USA-gray and Oman-blue-gray are very similar. It is indicative of quality control issues? Maybe…I believe the error crept in during the graphics layout where the challenge of differentiating so many similar colors inevitably led to a small oversight. Do the misprinted counters make the game unplayable? No. Do I wish Compass Games had caught the mistake before printing? Yes. Will I never buy another Compass Game? NO!
That’s a Big Ocean
Indian Ocean Region covers a vast area both geographically and physically with the game. With a map scale of 45 miles per hex and larger counters, there are three 22.5″x28″ mapsheets that, if laid out together, need a table over 5 feet wide. Alas, my normal gaming table is 3’x4′ which means I can easily get a one- or two-map game laid out but the full three-map scenarios require a different gaming space. I see some people talk about linking Indian Ocean Region and South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017) maps together but that would take the dining room table or more.
Yes, I know I’m talking about a first-world wargamer problem, but for somebody like myself who has reached, uh, “agreements” with CINC-HOUSE* over table space this can make gaming difficult. It also drives some game purchase decisions. As much as I am interested in the new version of NATO: The Cold War Goes Hot! (Compass Games, forthcoming in 2021) I think I’ll keep my original edition with its single 22″x34″ map and pass on the enlarged version in the new Designer’s Signature Edition.
Where You Sit is Where You Fight
One of the core mechanisms in Indian Ocean Region is a regulated turn order. The game assumes five major factions can be in play. The default turn order in either a Political or Military Turn is 1) Asymmetric, 2) China, 3) Indo-Am, 4) Symmetric Bay States, and5) Symmetric Gulf States or ACIBG. There are two Global Powers of USA and China and three other smaller Regional Powers. It is the arrangement of those Global and Regional Powers that raises my PoliSci eyebrow. As defined in the rule book:
“Asymmetric includes nations that rely heavily on unconventional strategies and tactics, including terrorism….” (Iran, Pakistan, Qatar (?), Somalia, Yemen)
“China uses central control to guide action in ‘free’ markets.” – China, The String of Pearls
“Indo-Am represents the established free market/democratic world order.” (Bahrain, India, USA, Diego Garcia, Australia, Britain)
“Symmetric Bay states want Chinese investment, but are weary [wary?] of too much subordination to Beijing.” (Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri-Lanka)
“Symmetric Gulf States are free traders with a long history of western engagement.” (Djibouti, Oman, United Arab Emirates).
Setting aside for a moment the mixture of geographical and political divisions, the fixed political alignment of the factions in Indian Ocean Region shows some strange bedfellows that may not be a current, or maybe even accurate, reflection of reality. I especially question the inclusion of Qatar in the “terrorist” Asymmetric States but maybe that is just a quibble over definitions. Also, The String of Pearls rule makes huge assumptions as to the success of Chinese “Belt and Road” initiative in the region—assumptions that are yet to play out and might better be used as an “option” or “variant” rule to more fully explore its impact on the political and military actions of the powers.
Example of Play
I realize that making an Example of Play is difficult. I know it takes time and careful planning as a good EoP will showcase game mechanisms in a way that teaches and reinforces. I am happy to see an extensive Example of Play in IOR—I am disappointed that it is taken from the previous game, South China Sea. Yes, the EoP explains core game mechanics, but by not basing it on the game in front of the reader a major learning opportunity is lost. Reading an EoP can only deliver so much understanding; if I am able to set up the EoP and push the counters around like in the example the combination of reading, seeing, and even feeling (the “tactile”) reinforces and accelerates learning.
Those Bi-Polar Days Are Over
Scoring in Indian Ocean Region is along a Victory Point Track that has the Indo-Am faction at one end and China at the other. In between sit the three other factions. I’m not sure what the score really tells me. The two “extreme” winners, China and the Indo-Am, are obvious, but why is a score of 14 points (just shy of China) an Asymmetric States (aka “Terrorist”) win? I feel that the score track needs a third dimension to capture the nuance of the regional powers and how they influence, but don’t necessarily “win” against the Global Powers. Then again, if your viewpoint is that the China-USA “competition” is a new Cold War, then this scoring viewpoint fits.
Full Steam Ahead
In the end, I find that Indian Ocean Region does what I expected it to do—deliver a fun, medium-low complexity gaming experience of modern naval warfare. The political alignment using the rules as written may be a bit wonky but there is nothing that says one cannot shift Regional Powers amongst the factions. It is especially interesting to split the Indians away from the Indo-Am faction and see how they might act if more “independent.” Indeed, it is the set up (or playing out) of the political game that creates the best opportunity for experimentation. Once battle is joined, the operational/tactical rules flow nicely and again deliver just enough flavor to make it interesting while not overwhelming one with too many details.
Next Generation SCSX
I don’t know what the future of the South China Sea series of wargames is but Indian Ocean Region shows how the design can be exported to other areas. I hope that John Gorkowski and Compass Games can do a Mediterranean or Black Sea or Baltic edition in the future. Both require the entry of a new Global Power—Russia. I can imagine a very interesting Baltic design with the USA and Russia as Global Powers and Old NATO and New NATO/Aspiring factions and even Neutrals. Such a game alsos need more land-based units that reach out into the littoral areas.
* CINC-HOUSE = “Commander in Chief – House.” If you don’t understand who occupies this position you are sorely out of touch with reality.
As a wargamer, there are a few battles one can count on to be the subject of a wargame. The number of Battle of the Bulge wargames is uncountable and, in a similar way, the Battle of Gettysburg has been getting the wargame royalty treatment since the Avalon Hill Game Co. published Gettysburg by the Father of Wargaming, Charles S. Roberts, way back in 1958. The book world is much the same—it is no stretch of the imagination to say that Gettysburg may be one of the most written about battles in American history. Which means that picking up any Gettysburg book, or wargame, runs the risk of of it simply being a rehash of the old.
Much of the criticism emanated from Lincoln’s notion that Lee’s army, somehow, could have been destroyed if Meade had only vigorously pursued the enemy then blindly attacked it when the Army of the Potomac came face to face with it on 13 July. Incredibly, no civilian official from inside Lincoln’s administration ever gave Meade credit for out-generaling General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg and thereby delivering the first victory of the Army of the Potomac since its formation in November 1861. Few historians have done so either.
“Epilogue”, p. 371
In Meade at Gettysburg, Kent Masterson Brown uses published and unpublished papers as well as diaries, letters, and memoirs to try and gain a better understanding of Meade at the Battle of Gettysburg. He does so by looking at Meade in four phases: From assuming command on 28 June 1863 through the advance to Gettysburg on 1 July, his tactical actions on 2 July, his decisions on 3 July, and the pursuit of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s army after the battle.
In wargames, we take the mapboard for granted. Indeed, a mapboard is often a necessity by defintion for a wargame. It is amazing to me that Meade and many of his generals fought the Gettysburg campaign without a decent map. As Brown tells us, “What Meade could not discern from the maps were any topographical features such as hill and ridges. Meade was using what were called residential maps, and they did not include such topographical features, although the Frederick County, Maryland and Adam County, Pennsylvania, maps provided outlines of the South Mountain range, but nothing more” (p. 57). Further, not only did Meade lack detailed maps, but he had a hard time understanding where his own forces were, much less that of the enemy. To use more modern terms, the Union generals in the field had no “common operating picture.” Indeed, Meade’s understanding of both the terrain and location of his own forces was so poor that on 1 July he ordered his corps commanders to sketch “their respective corps, their artillery, infantry, and trains” and to share this sketch with the army headquarters (p. 208).
The lack of maps and hidden force location is hard to duplicate in a wargame which all-too-often delivers a “God’s-Eye,” information-rich view of the battlefield. For example, Roads to Gettysburg II is played on a map with lots of information—far more than either army commander had at hand at the time.
There are ways that a poor map can be duplicated in a game, but the cost in playability is astronomical. Maybe a computerized version can simulate the gradual “discovery” of map details as units move and scouts operate, but I prefer tabletop wargames not screens. The reality is the lack of maps, topographical knowledge, and “common operating picture” that Meade faced at Gettysburg is not easily duplicated in a wargame.
What Year Did You Graduate West Point?
Whether one wants to admit it or not, whenever you play a historical wargame you almost always, inevitably, benefit from hindsight. Nobody wants to be like Sickles’ Third Corps and push out ahead only to be shattered by Longstreet. Often times players do things “differently” than in the past because they “know” what works…and doesn’t (didn’t?). On the other hand, sometimes players want to “try to get it right” and do one-better than history. After reading Meade at Gettysburg I found just such a moment in Meade’s orders to Reynolds’ First and Eleventh Corps: “Meade’s directive that the First Corps, followed by the Eleventh Corps, ‘advance on Gettysburg’ was not an order directing Reynolds to occupy the town or hold a position near there; rather, Meade intended for the presence of the First Corps along the turnpike axis to cause the enemy to coalesce and show its intentions” (p. 99).
Kent Masterson Brown in Meade at Gettysburg demonstrates the power of understanding not what we know today, but what the historical participants understood when describing Reynold’s mission as assigned by Meade on 30 June:
To force the enemy to concentrate and deploy so as to reveal its intentions was what Meade ordered Reynolds and his First Corps—followed by the Eleventh Corps—to do; it is identified as one of the most dangerous tasks in mid-nineteenth century warfare. Th strategy requires using an “Advance Guard,” according to Dennis Hart Mahan, professor of military and civil engineering and the science of war at West Point. Mahan published a book on the use of an advance guard in 1847, entitled An Elementary Treatise on Advance-Guard, Out-Post and Detachment Service of Troops and the Manner of Posting and Handling Them in the Presence of an Enemy. Mahan taught military science to Generals Meade, Reynolds, Slocum, Sedgwick, Hancock, Howard, and many others in the Army of the Potomac when they were West Point cadets. General Reynolds and Mahan had in fact taught strategy and tactics together at West Point just before the war. Likewise, many of Lee’s lieutenants studie under Mahan at Wet Point, and Lee was superintendent of West Point during Mahan’s tenure. Much of what Mahan taught was incorporated in the Revised Regulations of the Army of the United States of 1861.
“Force Him to Show His Hand”, p. 101-102
One of the key requirements of a leader is to understand the commander’s intent. As wargamers, we don’t always have a professional military education and, if we do, it more often than not the military science of today and not that of the past. In Meade at Gettysburg, author Kent Masterson Brown explains Meade’s intent as his fellow generals likely understood it. After reading the book, now I understand it too. This new understanding totally changes how I would play out a 1 July scenario in a Battle of Gettysburg wargame.
The Tactical General
The Army of the Potomac was about to enter the struggle of its life. What happened on 1 July was difficult enough. Now, the insubordination of a corps commander had placed not only his own Third Corps but the entire army at risk. No cavalry screened the army’s left flank. The troops would have to fight as they had never done before, and even that might not be enough, given the sheer magnitude of the attack the enemy was about to unleash on Meade’s left. Although Meade was the operational commander of the army, he was about to take tactical command of the fighting on 2 July.
“I Wish to God You Could, Sir”, p. 228
While Meade at Gettysburg focuses on the operational campaign, for 2 and 3 July it digs into the tactical level. That’s because Meade personally took command on the battlefield. This situation is most often what wargamers experience—direct tactical command of the pieces on the board. Here is your chance to “out-general” General Lee (or Rob, your longtime wargame partner). As a wargamer, this part of Meade at Gettysburg was what I could most easily relate to. It was also very disappointing. That’s because I suddenly felt “railroaded” by certain wargames.
Take for instance Mark Herman’s Gettysburg. The game starts on 1 July with Buford’s cavalry to the northwest of Gettysburg as they were historically. The Union First and Eleventh Corps enter on turn 1 from the south again like history. It is at this point the game diverges from history.
Mark Herman’s Gettysburg is played for up to six turns (three days) and victory is determined as follows:
The game usually ends at the conclusion of game turn 6. However, if at the end of any turn the Confederate player can trace a continuous road path from Entry Point A to any one or combination of Entry Points I, J, or K, uninterrupted by Union units or Zones of Control, not Influence, they win the game. If this condition does not occur by the conclusion of turn 6, then the player with the higher VP total wins. Each player receives 1 VP for each eliminated enemy unit. The Union player wins ties.
C3i Magazine – Battle of Gettysburg, 1863 – Rules of Play, p. 11
In other words, Mark Herman’s Gettysburg assumes that Meade wanted the battle to be fought at Gettysburg and not at Big Pipe Creek like he planned and Kent Masterson Brown explains in Meade at Gettysburg. Mark Herman’s entire game is predicated on the assumption that the player will be like Sickles and violate his commander’s intent and bring on a general engagement at Gettysburg. Sure, it makes for a nice wargame, but at this point is it even really historical, or just another counterfactual?
[Don’t take the above part wrong—Mark Herman’s Gettysburg is a very well designed wargame from the perspective of mechanics and does a great job for what is designed to do—”distilling history to it’s essence.”. It’s just that this game, like many other Gettysburg wargames, is designed to play the battle as it historically occurred—not as it was planned—and in the process makes several assumptions as to how the battle developed and the decisions of non-player commanders.]
In many ways, Meade at Gettysburg is a good primer for wargamers playing almost any Gettysburg game. Here you, the player, nominally are the commander at the head of the Army of the Potomac (like Meade). However, you often also assume the role of a corps or division commander, and depending on the game you might even devolve down to the brigade level. This “sliding command perspective” is part-and-parcel of wargames. Meade made it work; can you?
Let’s Play Operation!
Reading Meade at Gettysburg not only provided an interesting look at the campaign around the Battle of Gettysburg, but it also helped me understand more about my taste in wargames in general. Meade at Gettysburg reminded me that it is the operational level of war that is the most fascinating to me. Now, I certainly like tactical games and getting down to the nuts & bolts of battle. There is a certain joy at employing a weapon system in such a way to outfight your enemy, but to out-campaign an opponent is truly another level of achievement.
I understand that when a wargamer picks up a Battle of Gettysburg wargame they kinda expect to fight a battle at Gettysburg and not someplace else. Meade at Gettysburg shows readers—and wargamers—that fate is fickle and what one calls history is sometimes accidental and far from what the participants intended.
But what if….
What if you could do as good as Meade did? Wargames let us be like General Henry Jackson Hunt, Meade’s Chief of Artillery, who was not a fan of Meade after the Battle of Gettysburg. Yet, in 1888, he saw the battle in a new light:
Meade was suddenly placed in command. From that moment on all his acts and intentions, as I can judge of them, were just what they ought to have been, except perhaps in his order to attack at Falling Waters on the morning of the 13th, and especially on the 14th of July, when his Corps Commanders reported against it, and I was then in favor of the attack, so I can’t blame him. He was right in his orders as to Pipe Creek, right in his determination under certain circumstances to fall back to it; right in pushing up to Gettysburg after the battle commenced; right in remaining there; right in making his battle a purely defensive one; right, therefore in taking the line he did; right in not attempting a counter attack at any stage of the battle; right as to his pursuit of Lee. Rarely has more skill, vigor, or wisdom been shown under such circumstances as he was placed in, and it would, I think, belittle his grand record of that campaign by a formal defense against his detractors, who will surely go under as will this show story.