Review: Gettysburg: The Tide Turns27 Jul 2017 0
Review: Gettysburg: The Tide Turns
Released 14 Jul 2017
The surprise defeat of Robert E. Lee by George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg marked both a high water mark for the Confederate army and a key turning point in the American Civil War. The battle’s significance can hardly be overstated—Lee’s devastating loss there ended his ambitions to penetrate north of Virginia and convince Union politicians to withdraw support for the costly war. Gettysburg entered mythic status long ago, and its landmarks are familiar stomping grounds for generations of wargame enthusiasts.
Gettysburg is so familiar, in fact, that the setting can feel a bit rote to anyone who’s studied it at any length or played a few games based on the battle. The movements over the course of the three days become too familiar, with union forces retreating through town to defend Cemetery Hill, reinforcements trickling in, and the final, last-ditch offensive of Pickett’s Charge. Gettysburg: The Tide Turns, designed by Eric Lee Smith and released July 14th, aims to strip players of some of that familiarity with a simple but clever re-imagining of the IGOUGO turn system, and the result is a fresh-feeling game about managing uncertainty on a changing battlefield.
Presentation is lovely; action unfolds on a hex map of the Gettysburg area drawn in the style of Engineer Corps maps of the period. The grid is hidden, which can sometimes make judging exact distances and positions slightly difficult, but this is usually not a problem. Units are represented by abstract formations of Strength Point markers, and the sounds of rifle and canon fire are accompanied by plumes of gunsmoke. It’s all very pleasing to look at, like a general’s battle map set up in headquarters.
The game has five individual scenarios, representing each day of fighting plus Pickett’s Charge and “The Best Three Hours,” plus a campaign mode which includes the full three days (over 31 turns). The Union plays for time, trying to stall the Confederates and inflict as many casualties as possible while waiting for reinforcements, while the Confederate player must capture and hold victory points at key locations on the map.
Where things get interesting, though, is in the chit-based movement system. Each turn represents an hour, and as each turn begins, initiative is rolled and may be awarded to either the CSA or USA side, or to neither. Then, chits representing each division commander are placed in a virtual cup, along with chits for CSA and USA combat. These are then drawn randomly to determine which unit moves when, and when combat occurs. The side represented on a combat chit is the attacker, which grants advantages such as voluntary retreat and artillery bombardment.
This random order makes picking your engagements a much dicier proposition than it normally is in wargames, and it means Gettysburg: The Tide Turns is a game as much about risk management as it is about tactics and positioning. You’ll always have the chance to attack (and be attacked) each turn, but knowing it could happen at any time means thinking differently about your moves. Often, you’ll find a unit coming under fire before you’ve had a chance to position your artillery or move in supporting troops. This changes if you’ve drawn the initiative for a turn, in which case you’ll be able to play your combat chit at your discretion. Generally, however, it’s a scramble to get your forces into as ideal a position as possible, ready at all times for fighting to break out.
The difficulty this system creates in timing your moves is fascinating. Commanders in 1863 were operating without perfect information of the battlefield, and had to use educated guesswork in many cases to coordinate with friendly elements. It’s never a sure thing in The Tide Turns that your Iron Brigade will have time to link up with elements of XI Corps in town as Generals Heth and Pettigrew march their columns down the Chambersburg Pike, or that reinforcements will reach town in time to create the “Fish Hook” defensive line.
This will doubtless be a point of contention for some players. Often, wargames are about making the correct moves in a given situation, and in a setting like Gettysburg, there’s an understandable devotion to the history as it happened. The Tide Turns isn’t hanging its cavalry Stetson on historical verisimilitude, though, and instead is focused on presenting the fog of war in an interesting new way using what are essentially board game mechanics. And it’s true, the chit draw system can set up situations that feel a bit unfair: one player might get a string of consecutive moves and a combat at the end of one turn, and then get to move the same units again as the next turn begins, without their opponent getting a chance to react at all. As frustrating as this may be, especially at Gettysburg where the margins of victory were often vanishingly narrow, I ultimately found that it demanded an extra level of tactical planning and that the game was more rewarding for it.
Some technical issues should be mentioned. Players have reported crashes on certain turns, but I was unable to reproduce them with the build I played. However, playing the campaign against a friend online, we found that we couldn’t progress beyond Turn 3. Slitherine’s tech support has been responsive on the game’s forums though, and they say they’re working on a patch to address these issues. I haven’t personally run into any issues playing against the AI.
The Tide Turns is a game that expresses an important reality about the stochastic nature of battle. As the old military chestnut goes, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy,” and this is a game about planning for the unexpected and making the best out of situations where things don’t go the way you’d hoped. It’s not heightened realism, as the chit draw system is just a different abstraction, but it’s a way to highlight an aspect of warfare that’s typically difficult to get at in a game. Smith has found an elegant way to accomplish that using board game mechanics, and in the process has created a game about a well-trod battlefield that feels refreshingly unfamiliar.