Being the oldest RPS contributor has certain advantages. You can attend preview events in un-ironic cardigans, you can admit to finding 90% of manshoots deadly dull, and best of all, you get to sit in the RPS rocking chair and regale the young'uns with tales of wargaming glory. That's what Heavily Engaged is all about. Over the next month or so, I'll be giving a selection of the worthiest military strategy games on my shelves, the AAR treatment. Expect lashings of martial drama, tactical blunders aplenty (it's a while since I last played some of these), and maybe even a little dash of post-result historical analysis.
Let's get the cannonball rolling with Sid Meier's Gettysburg!, a 1997 turnless wargame so elegant, atmospheric, and plausibly challenging, it makes Creative Assembly's depictions of Nineteenth Century warfare seem positively pantomimic.
After blind-picking "Golden Opportunity: Will's Wood" from the long scenario list, I find myself in the midst of one of SMG's characteristically evocative briefings. Blue and red rectangles shuffle across a map paperweighted with revolver and percussion caps. Out of shot, richly accented Rebel commanders discuss an attack, an attack in which I'm to play a small but vital part. It's 1.30 on the afternoon of July 1, 1863, and my five Confederate brigades are just about to lead an assault on Union positions north of the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.
The preamble ends with a whistle-stop survey of those five brigades. Mr. Narrator is keen to remind me that the components of my army are by no means equal. Daniel's North Carolinians ("Your best brigade") and Doles' Georgians are veterans, Ramseur's force is small but experienced, Iverson's and O'Neal's men numerous but green. In other games these facts would be of minor importance. In SMG they're at the forefront of my mind as I survey the battlefield and devise a plan.
That plan is trident shaped. I intend to split my 8000 men into three strike forces. Daniel's brigade backed by Iverson's will attack Will's Woods (the most valuable of the two victory locations) from the north. Doles' brigade supported by O'Neal's will b-line south-west for Pennsylvania College (a less valuable secondary objective). Ramseur will hook south through the streets of Gettysburg, hopefully causing mischief in the enemy's rear. While all this is going on, my five cannon batteries will be searching-out promising vantage points from which to bombard the bluecoats.
Initial orders are issued, the GUI clock prodded from its slumbers. Manoeuvre columns of tiny grey-clad soldiers begin snaking their way towards unknown fates.
1.35 First contact. Marching west towards Oak Ridge, Daniel and Iverson's men come under long-range cannon fire from a battery in Will's Woods. Not wishing to be distracted from my plan (an assault along the crest of the ridge rather than up its steep face) I respond by sending a single skirmish line across the hill to harass the guns.
1.37 As Doles' force approaches Pennsylvania College, ranks of defenders come into view. It looks like the foe has both VLs heavily picketed.
1.40 The skirmishers on the ridge are pulling back after attracting the attention of a second battery. Severely shaken, they'll be out of the fight for a while, but their probe has done some good. Daniel's brigade is now on high ground ready to surge south.
1.42 Three enemy batteries ensconced in Will's Woods are now spewing shot in Daniel's direction. I can stick to the script and wait for Iverson and a supporting cannon battery (still climbing the ridge) before launching the attack, or go early. Well Stone, what's it to be? I order Daniel's brigade to advance to contact.
1.44 On the bank of a stream near the College, Doles' men shake-out into a mean-looking battle line. Behind them O'Neal's recruits do the same. As these lines begin edging southward, the first of (hopefully) many Rebel cannonballs smashes into the flanks of the Union position. One of my five batteries has found a cracking spot in an orchard to the east of the College.
1.46 Daniel has entered the lion's den. The vanguard brigade of my northern strike-force is now exchanging frantic musket fire with the dense overlapping lines of Union troops defending Will's Woods. In an attempt to add some breadth to my attack I extend Daniel's curved line westward with the newly arrived Iverson's brigade. Will the noobs be able to take the heat?
1.47 I'm starting to think I may have thrown too many resources at the secondary objective. With Doles approaching the College from the north, Ramseur from the south, it looks like there will be little need for O'Neal's raw recruits. It's very tempting to use the latter to link-up Daniel's left with Doles' right, thus creating one massive angry curlicue of Rebel muskets. Yes, that's what I'll do. O'Neal's greenhorns can have a crack at the steep eastern edge of Will's Wood.
1.55 Doles' troopers are heavily engaged now. Harried by the cannons in the orchard (now two batteries) the easternmost regiment in the Union defences is looking decidedly vulnerable. Good-good.
1.57 Ah. Trouble at Will's Woods. Iverson's callow Carolinians aren't coping well with the challenges in their sector. One regiment retreats of its own volition. The flag of another droops worryingly (flags function as morale indicators). In an effort to stop the rot I gallop my biggest cheese, Major General Robert E. Rodes, towards the wavering units.
2.02 Down at the College prospects look brighter. Shattered by enfilade fire, one of the four Union regiments flees westward.
2.05 Having made its way through the hot dusty streets of Gettysburg without incident, Ramseur's small but sturdy southern force are finally ready to join in the assault on the College. The federal defenders may end up caught between a rock and a hard place. Splendid.
2.06 Or perhaps not. There appear to be bluecoat reinforcements approaching from the sw.
2.12 Time to pause and ponder. O'Neal's men, like Iverson's on the other side of the woods, are showing their rawness. A yellow retreat arrow has appeared, and the flags of other regiments are looking disturbingly limp. There seems little hope the boys from Alabama will penetrate the eastern treeline.
2.13 That's good to see. The AI has sent one of his commanders down to the College in the hope of firming up the crumbling defences there. Happily, I suspect it's too late. Unless Union reinforcements can battle their way past Ramseur's position, the VL looks lost.
2.15 Sitrep: O'Neal's forces are looking increasingly ragged. Doles' and Ramseur's lines are closing like crocodile jaws around the College. There are small but promising signs of progress at the northern tip of Will's Woods (a Union regiment in the middle of Daniel's Crescent of Kill has taken to its heels).
2.18 A rebel yell goes up. We've taken Pennsylvania College!
2.20 That's what comes of getting cocky with cannons. In an effort to give artillery assistance to Iverson, I ordered a battery to deploy too close to Union lines. Raked by musket fire while unlimbering, the gunners sensibly routed. Clumsiness like that could easily cost me the battle.
2.27 Daniel's doggedness in the north is definitely starting to pay-off. I've just edged several of his regiments into the corpse-strewn hem of the copse.
2.33 Aided by the two batteries now firing from Englehart Farm, Ramseur and Doles roll westward towards the ridge. The Union reinforcements arrived in exactly the right spot (the weak junction between Doles and O'Neal) but came a few minutes too late to derail my advance.
2.40 O'Neal's and Iverson's brigades are both alarmingly close to collapse. Pushing them closer to the wood would be suicidal. It's up to Daniel, Doles and Ramseur now.
2.42 In an effort to steady the nerve of some of Daniel's shakier units, I move a couple of O'Neal's retreated regiments up behind them. SMG troops draw confidence from a range of different sources, including nearby commanders, protective terrain and friendlies to the flank and rear.
2.45 Carrington's battery relocates to a position from where it can bombard a growing knot of broken-but-rallying Union troops. The knot disperses in panic.
2.50 With Doles and Ramseur moving into Will's Woods from the south and east, things are looking increasingly desperate for the federals. I could attempt to complete the encirclement, but I'm not sure Iverson and O'Neal's sections of the noose would hold.
2.57 The foe still have some fight in them. Rallied(?) units are hitting Ramseur's left flank. A regiment I'd left at Mrs Thompson's House, in case of just such an eventuality is forced to retreat. Limbered cannons rush south in attempt to break-up the counter-attack.
2.58 In an effort to dislodge the last few regiments still stubbornly hanging on in the heart of Will's Woods, I order my first charge of the battle. The bayonet brandishers make it half way before scurrying back. A failure? Perhaps not. Seconds after this abortive assault, an enemy regiment breaks and flees.
3.00 The hills to the west are now scattered with retreating bluecoats. Most gratifying.
3.01 With one eye on the clock, I order another charge. This time the charge goes the distance, and after a brief scuffle, the chargees make themselves scarce.
3.05 A reassembled Union battery begins pounding one of Iverson's fragile flanks. Almost certainly too little, too late.
3.08 Sweeping through the trees from the south Ramseur and and Doles finally evict the last Union unit from the VL. At last Will's Woods is in Confederate hands. We've done it.
But at what cost? What the results screen calls a "Decisive Confederate Victory" is, on examination of the kill stats, a rather close-run thing. Both sides ended-up leaving the field with around 1300 fewer sprite soldiers than they started with. The always-interesting "Most Effective Unit" award went to the 45th North Carolinians, one of the regiments spearpointing Daniel's slow and difficult northern assault. "Most Effective Brigade" and "Hardest Fighting Unit" titles went to Union units that weathered that assault for so long.
Watching the replay rectangles jostle and realign I'm struck by how closely the battle followed my original plan. SMG scraps rarely go this smoothly. Honestly, I can't remember the last time a plan of attack required fewer tweaks. Usually on 'Doubleday' difficulty, my lines end-up writhing like a speared eel. Perhaps I got lucky today.
What about the real Rebel assault - did that go like clockwork too? A rummage through online reference material suggests not. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, the real Rodes decided to lead with Iverson's and O'Neal's brigades. Woefully commanded by their respective leaders (and without the benefit of a pause button or an omniscient overseer in the sky) both brigades all but disintegrated on first contact with the foe.