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Gettysburg: Badges of Courage» Forums » Reviews

Subject: A Gamer's Gettysburg rss

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Lowell Drake
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The first “historical simulation” ever produced as a board game was Gettysburg (1958 by Charles Roberts, under the new Avalon Hill label). Since then, although I haven’t made an official count, it’d be my guess that more war games have been on the battle of Gettysburg than any other military engagement in history. To produce another of the same theme requires guts and some new gaming concepts. Using their block system for depicting the units, Columbia has done a good job of entering yet another game of an old topic.

The Components
Columbia Games has made a reputation for putting out games that are both good looking and fun to play. Gettysburg: Badges of Courage is no exception. The first thing you notice when you pick up the game is the great art on the cover, with Lew Armistead, hat impaled on sword, leading his men in Picket’s Charge. After opening the solid box you find the unit stickers, which you must peel off the pages and fix to the wooden blocks enclosed, are attractive enough to simply admire before you begin putting them together. The map, as well, is very attractive, clearly labeling all the historical features around the town of Gettysburg.

Once you sit down to prepare to play, however, you first have to put all those unit stickers on the blocks, and this may be where the initiate into block gaming first discovers that you have to earn the right to play this game. First of all, it’s a long and tedious process pulling those stickers off their page, and to compound your frustration is the fact that some of those stickers may tend to tear as you remove them from the sheet. Well, you HAVE invested $80 into this game, so you must persevere and, after much vexation and some well-chosen words appropriate to a Civil War battlefield, you’ll finally get the blocks labeled and ready for play.

The units are labeled such that it’s easy to see which brigades belong to which divisions, and this is important since unit integrity is enforced in the game. This is an element lacking in most war games, and I really appreciated how well the mechanics work in BoC.

The rules booklet is well laid-out, and I love the concept of the side bar. The sidebar, which runs along the right edge of each page, contains definitions, examples of play, design notes, and options for play. I’ve read early reviews of the game which complained of some vague points in the rules, but as I read the latest edition I found them easy to understand, and we never had any points where we were flummoxed. Wish all war games had such good rules.

The Game
Gettysburg: Badges of Courage covers the entire three-day battle around the small Pennsylvania town. There are three scenarios as well, so gamers with a premium of time can play a game in an afternoon. Combat is resolved by rolling dice and referring to the units’ strength and firepower factors, so no Combat Results Table is included. I loved the integration of the strength factor and the firepower factor in affecting a unit’s chance to get a hit on an enemy unit. There isn’t a lot of clutter on the units, but what numbers are there are incisive.

As any experienced wargamer knows, we all fall into one of two broad categories: those who love history first and play the games to sit in the general’s saddle, and those who are gamers first and appreciate the historical flavor (but they can enjoy a fantasy or sci-fi game just as much). Gettysburg: Badge of Courage, for all the detail given to historicity, definitely leans more to the gamer than the historian. In attempting to recreate the feel of ammo depletion, the game severely limits the firing ability of the individual units. Division commanders must be “activated” for a brigade to fire or melee, and each time the HQ does so it takes a step reduction. This works out so that only a few brigades are actually able to fire or melee before the division commander lies exhausted, while the men are still scrapping for a fight. The map is also too small for the units. At the beginning of the first day the unit density is great and accurately depicts the initial engagement, but by the afternoon of the first day the units are stacked too tightly, and since only one brigade is able to fire across one hexside, the majority of your units are lined up waiting their turn (which never comes because the HQ is out of ammo).

The idea of blocks for unit counters is an innovation made popular by Columbia Games, and it works well to simulate the fog of war and the step reduction of units. The trade-off comes in the size of the units. Those blocks take up a lot of room, and even on the over-size hexagons the map can get so clogged with nearly 200 blocks that it’s pretty difficult to see the map. The map, as attractive as it is when you first lay it out, is still vague on many counts, and it’s not easy when the board is jammed with units to tell which side of the hex line is the slope of a hill. At one point I had a neat defensive line of Union troops ready to receive an attack, when upon closer scrutiny, I discovered I’d made my fine defense AT THE BOTTOM OF SEMINAY RIDGE LOOKING UP THE HILL! You can feel pretty foolish if you’re a veteran war-gamer and get caught in such a blunder.

The victory conditions are also written for the gamer rather than the historian. On the first day the Confederate army can rush units to grab as many victory points as possible, and the Union army is pretty powerless to do much to stop them. As a historical simulation this is just plain dumb. The historians among us may refuse to be baited into such a low strategy, but if you like to win (and who doesn’t), you just shrug your shoulders and send a division to grab The Peach Orchard. The victory points are placed on locations made famous by the actual battle (like the Peach Orchard), but when Lee rode up to Gettysburg that first of July, those places were strategically and tactically meaningless. The object was to destroy the opposing army, not grab the peaches before the other guy got there.

There are no separate charts for terrain effects, unit data, etc. and this is a limitation since the players must constantly refer to the back of the rules book. This is a small feature that could be easily added in a game that runs $80.

Style: 5 This game lives up to Columbia’s reputation for great aesthetics in gaming. The box, the pieces and the board are awesome.

Substance: 4 A fun game, but not a historical simulation in the strictest sense. They could have done better, but then they’d need a game map twice as large.
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Lance Wilkinson

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Re: A Gamer's Dettysburg
Nice review. I assume the subject line has a typo and I'm not missing a pun?

I also wonder if you've played other Gettysburg games, and if so, what difference you found the blocks made.
 
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Lowell Drake
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Thanks for the heads up on the typo - very embarrassing. It's corrected.
About blocks and other Gettysburg games, I don't find the blocks making that great a difference, since the units are all fairly similar. As the Union I found it helpful to hold a position with one unit and a leader, which was pathetically weak, so there is some advantage. The best part of the blocks is the step reduction - just rotate the block and you show the new strength of the unit. This is way better than replacing counters, but it requires attention. If you play with someone who just pushes the pieces around and isn't minding the details, you may be facing an army impervious to damaage.
 
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Freddy Dekker
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So many years later, just discovering this game.
[must have been on a slow boat]

I must say the artwork in the game is indeed great.
I love the block-art.

On the other hand the map being too small for the game, not as clear as could be an the overcrowding is rather off puting.
 
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