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ConsimWorld Expo 2009: The One Day and Change of Gettysburg

posted Aug 22, 2012, 10:15 PM by Douglas Sun
Originally posted July 6, 2009

Work has kept me from posting a summary of our The Three Days of Gettysburg game at ConsimWorld Expo, but perhaps it's just as well. With the 4th of July Weekend come and just gone, it's actually not a bad time to look back at our attempt to come to grips with what happened at that Pennsylvania college town almost exactly 146 years ago.

It took rather less than three full days to fight the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, but we decided to allow ourselves the full five days and change of ConsimWorld Expo, just in case. Rob Vaughn and Tom Kaufman, who had volunteered to host the game, pulled into Tempe a little behind their schedule, but even so we were able to get under way Tuesday evening. Set-up did not take long, as very few units begin the game on-map, and Rob V. and Tom had all of the reinforcements pre-sorted and bagged by formation and entry turn. 

I must say that I picked up a couple of useful logistical hints from them. It's common nowadays to use plexiglass sheets to flatten and protect game maps, but our hosts instead used thin plastic sheeting, which they unrolled, folded over the edges of the table like Saran Wrap and secured with tape. It worked very well, as it was impossible to jar it, and it provided a functionally water-tight seal in case anything got spilled on the table. They also used plastic sign stands to display charts and tables upright, which both saved table space and made player aid cards easier to consult. After I got home, I went to Office Max and picked up a box of them for my own use.

By mid-evening, all five of our group had assembled and we were ready to start Heth's

division pounding down the Chambersburg Pike. Because the Union army has more separate commands, we staffed that side more heavily, with Rob V. (XI Corps), Rob Mull (Buford's Cavalry division) and me (I Corps — yay, Iron Brigade!). Tom and Mike McClellan split Heth's brigades, pending the arrival of more commands; eventually, Mike ran A.P. Hill's corps by himself, with Tom taking care of Ewell's corps.

By the time we broke for the night, we had made it through the 1100 turn of the First Day, a fairly respectable showing. Rob M., who had eagerly volunteered for Buford's command, handled his troopers aggressively and

Looking for shoes: The initial set-up, with Heth’s division entering at the far corner.

made a strong stand along Herr's Ridge. They took a pretty good mauling — probably more so than Buford did historically — but he did buy me plenty of time to set up most of I Corps along McPherson's Ridge unmolested. It was a slightly ahistorical result, with no great collision between Archer's brigade and the Iron Brigade; and in fact, I sensed throughout most of our game that Mike and Tom deliberately avoided taking on the Iron Brigade straight-up. But then, I, too, took the lessons of history to heart, making sure that Reynolds was always away from the front line so that he wouldn't take a bullet to the head.

Even more ahistorical, I managed to drum up the least likely (and most favorable for the Union) result when rolling for the variable entry of Doubleday's 1st and 3rd Brigades. They

came on in the 0800 turn, and we set them up near Bream's Hill, covering the far left of the Union position. This seemed like a significant development at the time, but in the end, I'm not sure that it did our side much good.

We ended Tuesday's play with I Corps pretty much unscathed, but with Buford's division good for little else but screening, and Heth's division bled down very little.

Variable entry: The bulk of Doubleday’s division arrives on the field earlier than expected (far edge of the map). In the middle of the map, the rest of I Corps rushes north along the Emmitsburg Road.

We began Wednesday with high hopes of making significant progress through the battle, perhaps even finishing the entire game before the weekend was out. But as more commands entered the map, play slowed down, and to what effect we would see soon enough.

We resumed play promptly after breakfast. Mike shattered whatever smug security we on the Union side felt about our position when he sent Pender's division swinging around on their right flank, toward our lightly defended left (instead of stacking him up behind Heth's men, as happened historically). This was an ahistorical action, but it made perfect tactical sense, and under the GBACW Activation rules, Pender will almost always have enough Activations to make himself a threat this way — and a severe threat he will be, because of the exceptionally high quality of the troops in his command. In our game, Mike handled Pender adeptly, and smashed through Doubleday's brigades, Barlow's division from XI Corps (which Rob V. had to detach just to bolster the flank) and Gamble's cavalry brigade by late afternoon of the First Day as casually as flicking bread crumbs off of a table.

Meanwhile, on the other flank, Rodes and Early's divisions from Ewell's corps descended on

Gettysburg. Instead of making his stand north of the town, as Howard did historically, Rob V. posted Schurz's and von Steinwehr's divisions to the south. Devin's cavalry brigade harassed the Rebels as they came through the town, then pulled back to join Gamble in reserve. Buford's division was now effectively out of the fight, unfortunately leaving Rob M. without much to do until XII

I Corps makes its first stand, on the morning of the First Day, along McPherson’s Ridge. Note the line of breastworks counters; Buford’s cavalry bought enough time for I Corps to build them, though at considerable cost to themselves.

Corps entered the map. I Corps abandoned their breastworks on McPherson's Ridge and pulled back to Seminary Ridge, but as Ewell's men continued to flood south, I had to pull them back even further, eventually stringing them out between the southern half of Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge.

As the afternoon wore on, Rodes and Early's divisions moved on Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill. Rodes broke through von Steinwehr's division briefly and took out a couple of XI Corps batteries, but fortunate Activation draws allowed me to shift Robinson's division of I Corps over to cover the gap. Early's division suffered an almost inconceivable repulse attacking Cemetery Hill when John B. Gordon was killed and two Louisiana regiments from Hays' brigade and three Georgia regiments from Gordon's brigade routed. Basically, Tom suffered an incredibly bad run of UDD rolls, which he handled with what seems to be characteristic calm. But it did prompt him, Rob V. and me to exchange "gaming rage" stories while waiting for the other guys to finish up the turn.

Though Early had stalled, Heth finally forced I Corps off of Seminary Ridge all together, inflicting heavy casualties on Robinson's division. XII Corps was coming up not a moment too soon for the Union side.

Here is where we ended play on Wednesday, at the end of the 1600 turn on the First Day. Rob V. and Tom remained optimistic about our chances of at least getting through the Second Day. But a comparison of our progress on Tuesday and our progress on Wednesday should have been sobering: We completed four turns on Tuesday evening alone; playing all day Wednesday, we completed five turns.

We began Thursday hoping to get through the rest of the First Day expeditiously, but the situation only became more complicated and tense, as the fight over Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill started up again. O. Smith, commanding von Steinwehr's 2nd Brigade, got cut off with one of his regiments just south of the town, but by themselves they held off Rodes' men trying to consolidate the Rebel hold on Culp's Hill. That, I think, was the

End of the 1600 game turn, First Day. This is how things stood as we broke for the night at the end of Wednesday. All of the action is taking place south of Gettysburg by now. Note Pender’s division marching through the glare spot on the left, obviously hoping to deliver a strong right cross to the Union. We had to extend our meager forces far to the south and east just to deal with it.

Shelby Foote moment of our game — a moment in which, if our game had been actual history instead of a paper recreation, Foote would have singled out a brigade or regimental commander as properly Homeric in his heroism.

Fortunately for the Union, we got a favorable Random Event roll, which allowed us to shift III Corps’ entry point as reinforcements and give Sickles' divisions a shorter march to the sound of the guns. Ultimately, the threat from Pender's division (and Stuart's cavalry) would force III Corps to deploy farther south than they did historically, with XII Corps firming up the Union center instead of guarding the barb of the fishhook on Culp's Hill. Essentially, the only thing that could slow Pender's juggernaut was the presence of two fresh Union corps.

We needed the remainder of Thursday to get through dusk and the overnight turns. So we closed out the entire First Day of Gettysburg in two whole days and change of play, going from about 9:30 a.m. through to 13:00 p.m. with only a dinner break. I'm not sure how things looked to the Confederate players, but the Union position looked difficult to me: Pender's division by itself could give XII Corps and III Corps as much as it could handle; I Corps was finally taking serious casualties from Confederate musketry, though giving some in return, and XI Corps had almost disintegrated.  Ewell's divisions had taken high ground that they Union historically held at the end of the First Day, and Tom had deployed Johnson's fresh division between Early and Rodes, clearly intending to shoot the gap between Culp and Cemetery Hills and clear I Corps from the remaining high ground at dawn.

I recall that we adjourned on Thursday night, all of us eager to get on with the Second Day of Gettysburg. In other words, I don't think any of us were quite prepared for what would happen next.

The 0600 turn of the Second Day began with four Union corps and two Confederate corps on the map, and more troops on both sides set to enter as reinforcements. There was something like 60 Activation chits in the cup, all of them demanding at least perfunctory attention before the turn could be completed. Fighting resumed at the flanks, with Buford's revived division taking on Jeb Stuart's cavalry on the Union left, and Ewell's corps mopping up the remnants of XI Corps. I Corps continued to hold the apex of the Union line, though only because of Confederate reluctance to take on the Iron Brigade directly. Fortified by the hotel's breakfast buffet, we skipped lunch and kept playing. But by midday, we had made it halfway through the 0600 turn, if that.

Around mid-afternoon, I was faced with a difficult decision. I had promised Chad and Kai Jensen a game of Through the Ages, but they couldn't wait any longer for me, as our fourth player (Combat Commander developer John Foley), was leaving for home first thing Saturday. With the blessing of the other Union commanders, I begged off for a while, hoping to get back to Gettysburg by mid- evening. But to be honest, our rate of progress through 3DoG had slowed to a rate that I considered ominous.

And indeed, while I was engaged in losing badly to Chad Jensen at Through the Ages, everyone else in the 3DoG group decided that they'd had enough. Around 5 p.m., Mike McClellan wandered over and told me that they had called it quits after finishing the 0600 turn. While I was gone, Rob V. had sent II Corps north to Culp's Hill, where it collided with Johnson's division. And that was it. All told, it took six hours of play to complete that last game turn.

I was disappointed, but also relieved to hear that everyone had decided to call it. At the rate

we were going, there was no way that we would get through so much as the morning of the Second Day, even if all of us agreed to play all the way through to the end of the convention. If the rest of our group had reached the point of exhaustion, well, I had to admit that so had I. At that moment, there was no getting around it: Instead of one group of players defeating the other, all of us had been beaten by The Three Days of Gettysburg.

Our inability to get through much more than one day of the battle is puzzling to me because we had a pretty darn good group of players. There was no dawdling, bickering or time-wasting of any other sort at all. Rob Vaughn and

The One Day and Change of Gettysburg: This is where we called it quits, having just completed the 0600 turn of the Second Day. The Union line isn’t quite the historical slender fishhook along the high ground, but... it’s a line. II Corps is coming up the Taneytown Road, forced to the Union right to prevent Ewell’s corps from consolidating Culp’s Hill. Meanwhile, Longstreet’s men arrive and head for the Confederate right, obviously with a smashing flank attack in mind.

Tom Kaufman had the game organized and laid out for speed and ease of use, so there was no fumbling around with components. We tried to speed things along by occasionally drawing Activation chits in advance, and moving commands simultaneously, if one would not affect the other. Rob V., Tom, Mike McClellan and Rob Mull, are all smart, agreeable and efficient gamers, and real gentlemen, to boot; it was a group that should have been able to make good time through this, or any game. And yet we didn't come all that close.

Perhaps the unique flow of events in this iteration of the game made it go slow, although looking back on it, I don't see how this would be so. It could be that we were just doomed from the start in that playing 3DoG is always going to be an incredibly long and taxing process because of the length and scale of the battle (there were, after all, about 150,000 men to fight it and only five of us to play a simulation of it). For instance, I have it on good authority that the group who played River of Death (the GBACW Chickamauga game) got through the entire battle by the end of the convention, even though they started much later than we did.

But whatever the underlying why and wherefore, I have no regrets about signing up for 3DoG, which is a game about which I have always had a lot of curiosity. This was far and away my deepest immersion in the GBACW system, and it gave me fresh insights into that system, as well as 3DoG in particular (and that's a topic for a whole other post). Above all, I appreciate that Rob Vaughn and Tom Kaufman organized the game with such care, and that I had the chance to play in enjoyable company. Marathon monster gaming strikes me as a little like serving on a submarine: You're going to spend a lot of time in close quarters, so you'd better get along with everyone else. If and when I decide to give the Great Battles of the American Civil War series another serious try, I wouldn't hesitate to do it with them. Next year, at ConsimWorld Expo? I wouldn't rule it out....

But maybe not 3DoG. My curiosity about the game remains genuine, and someday it would be nice to play the entire battle all the way through from beginning to end. But at the moment, what comes to mind are the words of the young British officer who wrote home just after having survived the ordeal of the Waterloo Campaign: "I have often expressed a wish to see a general engagement. I have — and I am entirely satisfied."