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Sid Meier’s Gettysburg (1997)

April 25th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 13 Comments · Design, Feature:Map, Firaxis, Wargames

What this is about

One of the defining features of historical wargames is the use of terrain to capture important features of the battle(s) being portrayed. An acquaintance is developing a tabletop game based on Foronovo, so he is working out how to reflect the riverside and mud. Hastings needs a hill, Teutoberg Forest needs thick woods, Omaha Beach requires cliffs and beach – the terrain is integral to understanding how the battle played out and to capturing the You Are There sensation that is one of the major appeals of historical wargaming.

There are few battles in American history as rich with terrain features as Gettysburg. The 1863 battle between Robert Lee’s invincible Army of Northern Virginia and George Meade’s increasinly powerful Army of the Potomac is cited as one of the turning points of the American Civil War, so the lay of the land has become a map that even casual Civil War buffs know.


Peach Orchard. Seminary Ridge. Big and Little Round Top. Devil’s Den. Cemetery Hill. The Wheatfield.

In fact, the battle is so important and well-known and studied that I suspect (researching old wargames is hard) that only Waterloo, D-Day and The Battle of the Bulge have been more popular with game designers. And, though it is a dozen years old, Sid Meier’s Gettysburg is the best of the lot even though it is not really about the real historical Gettysburg. It remains my favorite Civil War themed wargame of all time, with only the Take Command games coming close.

It’s important to remember that, for Meier, history is usually just a playground of ideas. Pirates! is about pirate movies, not Blackbeard. Civilization was built from a book with a timeline of history, not any deep understanding of how empires rise and fall. His Civil War games, Gettysburg and Antietam, are the closest he comes to capturing real history. And Gettysburg, I think, reveals an analysis of the battle that depends on how the generals used terrain. For Meier, the battle was less about two long lines of men trying to outmaneuver each other than it was about a series of smaller engagements seeking a small tactical advantage on the map that could be used to leverage a larger victory.


I think this is so because, even though the game is called Gettysburg, you can’t play the battle of Gettysburg, at least not the whole thing. You can play various scenarios from the battle, but the long campaign of the game is a series of counterfactuals and hypotheticals based on your performance from one engagement to the next. Where the later Antietam would let you control the entire front, Gettysburg did not.

One reason for the smaller focus of the battles was Meier’s insistence on making the game real time. Though real time wargames were not new, few other wargames involved as much careful attention to everything going on with your soldiers. Walking through forests, climbing hills, declining morale, constant artillery barrages…though later developers would demonstrate that many gamers can deal with all of this at once over a wide front, I can understand the reluctance to overwhelm players in a new system. Meier’s audience was wider than most wargame developers, after all.

The effect is to concentrate your mind on your army’s immediate surroundings. Rushing to seize important defensible terrain is crucial to victory. If you can get a fence between your victory point and your advancing opponent, then you might be able to hold off a superior force. Defense is easier than offense, but smart use of covering woods and the occasional forced march could force a wall of men and cannon to redirect their attention.

The game really revealed its brilliance in its random battle generator. Though the battlefield didn’t change, your manpower and location would based on parameters you had entered. And the resulting encounter was always plausible, convincing and compelling. Gettysburg succeeds as a multiplayer game entirely based on this tiny bit of shiny code. And, somehow, it is the terrain that becomes a leveling factor in what might look like a walkover on paper. Even the question of how to get reinforcements to the front is reliant on the angle of approach. How many roads are between here and there? Do I want speed or placement? Is this reinforcement to set up a new front or simply plug holes in a tiring line? All the answers to these questions depend on how you understand the map.


It is for that reason that I think Sid Meier’s Gettysburg teaches field command better than many other supposedly hardcore wargames. It has no logistics model, of course, nor do you have the levels of command that you do in the Take Command games. What it does have is a union of land and men, an understanding of how a battle can be won or lost because you chose to fight on the wrong hill, or missed an avenue of attack. Because the game is real time, you can sometimes see the end coming, but you can never be sure. I once won a battle against a friend because I force marched two columns of men along a stream through the woods and hit him at the last minute, retaking my hill and saving my guns. And the Union, of course.

The look of the game doesn’t hold up, of course, compared to some other games in our series. Where you can look at Imperialism and still be enchanted by its simplicity, Sid Meier’s Gettysburg is only marginally more appealing in appearance than its contemporary Age of Rifles. The near fluorescent greens of the grass and blocky floating names are almost cringe inducing from an artistic perspective.

But as a pure wargame, Gettysburg stands out because it sees the battlefield as more than just a place where things happened. It is a place where decisions were made, where opportunities presented themselves. The design is so centered on the place that the map becomes a sort of Dungeon Master, constantly confronting you with new ways of seeing what is unfolding in front of you. Few wargames have done that so well.

Next, Combat Mission, another game all about understanding the map before you advance.


13 Comments so far ↓

  • moromete

    I’ve always played more of Antietam than of Gettysburg but that game also manages to reflect how the fight was at once local and strategic while also delivering the importance which terrain and the relations between troops and terrain is crucial (or was crucial) in war. Great games and great design from Meier…

  • Alex

    Another game that I wish Sid Meier would remake. He has remade Pirates, Colonization, and Civilization countless times, why not Gettysburg?

  • Cautiously Pessimistic

    Great. Another sign of my advancing years. I remember Gettysburg as a recent release. GET THOSE KIDS OFF MY LAWN! Freakin’ beatniks with their hiphop music and baggy pants…

  • spelk

    I loved Robert E. Lee Civil War Generals, and Age of Rifles in my early days on computer based civil wargaming.. but having missed out on SMG, I was recently advised by the folks on wargamer.com forums to try SMG. After installing the XP patch, I managed to get the game to run, but as much as I wanted to enjoy myself, I think the graphics held me back.. to come off Take Command and hit SMG I just couldn’t stick it. I long for a remake of a tactical level american civil war game that doesn’t necessarily require the flamboyance of the operational level AGEOD’s ACW.

    I agree that having the terrain play a major role in the scenario is key to outcome, including the units you choose, or how you choose to play them.

  • JonathanStrange

    Great article, Troy, thanks for even remembering the old days!

  • Ginger Yellow

    I picked up Gettysburg! a year or so ago. After quite a bit of fiddling to get it working, I discovered a fantastic game, still my favourite real time wargame after Total War. It has just the right balance between realism and playability, intuitive UI and degree of control. I wish he’d update it for modern PCs.

  • Rob Zacny

    Wow, this is an interesting take on the game and I confess I hadn’t really thought of it this way. For me, SMG was a favorite old friend, but one that had been thoroughly superseded by Take Command.

    Part of that might be personal taste, because with SMG I always feel that I am in control of the battle’s minutiae. I am personally placing and facing each regiment, making certain my artillery is hitting the right targets with the right mix of ammunition. As such, SMG always allowed me to indulge the worst micro-managing instincts.

    What I love about Take Command is that it punishes me for trying to be that hands-on. It is superficially like SMG, but it’s view of the battle is so much more life-like than Sid Meier’s. It’s about how simple tasks, like brushing two regiments off a roadway, can escalate until they become corps level clashes.

    I guess I see it like this: in SMG, I orchestrate the battle, but in TC2m, the battle is like a river whose flow I can redirect, but cannot control.

  • Troy

    That’s a good way to put it, Rob. I love the Take Command games – the failure of those games to sell well, and therefore keep Mad Minutes in business, is one of my great disappointments.

  • Rob Zacny

    I know what you mean. I would have been thrilled to see a Take Command series that covered more campaigns.

    However, was it sales that killed the series? It’s really well regarded in wargamer circles, and that’s about the only market where a game like this could be expected to do well.

    I heard that some really bad blood developed between the lead programmer and lead designer, and that more than anything killed Mad Minute.

    Hmm, perhaps a Three Moves Ahead discussion on the series, and recommended mods for it, would be in order? Thanks to this post, I’m really kind of excited to get back to some Civil War field command.

  • Troy

    I have no idea about any inside politics between the two guys at Mad Minute. One of them fell ill, I know. But they were clearly disappointed before that. In spite of how well the first game was received – and the History Channel branding – Activision had no interest in keeping the series. So they moved to Paradox for the second one before the Swedish studio really had a firm grasp on how to market third party titles. So it received even less press than the first game.

    Though wargamers are clearly the target audience, you can make the case that Take Command could have been easily marketed as a Total War ACW thing, even though it isn’t; at least not in the same way. I wouldn’t be surprised if the much inferior Imperial Glory sold better precisely because Pyro wasn’t afraid of the comparison.

    There is a huge audience of Civil War buffs out there, after all, especially in the studio’s locality. And the Mad Minute games would run on most reasonably powerful machines of the time. Take Command was not a cheap game to develop, which is why the second one used most the same map assets as the first. It was poorly marketed, and deserved much better than it got.

  • alex

    SMG spoiled me for many other wargames – it was one of the few games where reading the lay of the land could be so instrumental to success. It also made clever use of “command” units for added morale or reconnaisance, and at the higher levels the AI could really pull some interesting tricks.

    On the other hand, the game really was hard to follow on the larger fronts. Reinforcements or important developments were not signposted.

    Still, SMG gave me more “stories” and a battles I remember than the whole of the rest of my wargaming. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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