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30 April, 2008

 Products The Guns of Gettysburg Design Diary Putting Spade to Ground

The Guns of Gettysburg Design Diary: Putting Spade to Ground

In spite of the fact that the design diary for my previous game, Napoleon’s Triumph, revealed how terribly slow and halting the process was for that game (and how many blind alleys the design went down prior to completion), people did seem to enjoy reading it, and so I’ve decided to keep a diary for the new game, The Guns of Gettysburg, as well. Whether it will prove to be a good idea or not remains to be seen, but it will be attempted. As was true last time, the diary could not be published until enough work had been done on the game that confidence that it would be published was reasonably high, which meant that a good deal of design work was actually completed before the diary was begun, and so the diary will mix descriptions of old work with updates on new. The first entry will deal with the question of topic selection.

The choice of Gettysburg will not, of course, meet with universal approval. Some are certain to complain that the subject has been done to death and that a less familiar subject would be much more welcome. That I go where many, many designers have gone before is something that I admit, and it is my hope that whatever the subject lacks in novelty that it makes up for in inherent interest as a historical subject as well as in inherent positive qualities from a game-play perspective.

Gettysburg as an object of historical interest hardly requires any defense from me; the enormous primary and secondary literature that exists on it really speaks for itself. The question of game-play, however, is worth some discussion, not so much because I expect it to be controversial but because the general question of what attributes of a subject make for a good game is (I think) an interesting question.

The question of what qualities make for a good game is interesting in part because there is no one unique answer; there are lots of different ways for a game to be enjoyable and so there are lots of different ways for a subject to qualify. The key here is that different games can give different types of experiences to the players. Understanding what makes a game good really begins with consideration of what kind of experience the designer is trying to give the players with his game.

My first real interest in Gettysburg as a game subject goes back many years to seeing Terrible Swift Sword for the first time. Here was this enormous game with a huge number of units which players could start playing within minutes of getting it out of the box, assuming only that a minimal effort had been made to sort the pieces after punching them out. Sure, TSS had pacing problems (serious pacing problems, actually) once all those units really started pouring onto the board, but still, what a great way to start a game! My choice of Marengo for the first Simmons Games title was in large part conditioned by my affection for that hit-the-ground-running experience, which was also present in that battle.

Movement is another desirable quality that Gettysburg possesses (James Dunnigan once said that wargames should provide "the illusion of movement", but for the life of me I’ve never known why he thought that they should provide the “illusion” of movement as distinct from simply providing movement). This quality is particularly prominent in the opening part of the battle, when reinforcements come streaming into play from multiple directions, with each group changing the shape and nature of the battle as it arrives. While the historical battle had lost this quality by the third day, it has never been clear to me that a game of the battle would have to lose it in the same way: even in the historical battle Longstreet thought that the Confederates should have continued working on the Union left flank rather than the frontal assault ordered by Lee.

Natural balance is another postive quality. While it is always possible to balance a game based on an unbalanced situation through a variety of mechanisms, the most important of which are the victory conditions, it generally produces a more satisfying game when the victory conditions in the game are aligned with the historical objectives of the opposing sides, so that victory in the game corresponds with the winning side having achieved its historical objectives. Here I think Gettysburg’s prospects are excellent and just as the game starts fast, it has the makings of a satisfying conclusion in which the winner should feel like he really won and the loser should feel like he really lost. (Of course, it is also desirable that the loser should feel that next time he can do better, which leads me to the last attraction of the subject that I intend to discuss here.)

That quality is what I refer to as an open situation, one for which the right answer for either side is not obvious from the circumstances of the historical event. Oppoosed to this is what I call a closed situation, in which there is really only one right plan, and the game comes down to how well it is executed. Openness can be a delicate quality to preserve in a game, and right now I can only hope that I do the subject justice. The difficulty is that if the design errs in even one of the possible lines of play, it is enough to hurt the game, even if all the other lines of play work out as expected. For example, although I think that I did a good job with this in Napoleon’s Triumph, I erred somewhat in Bonaparte at Marengo, as most players find a French withdrawal easier to execute than I expected, and an Austrian pursuit harder, resulting in a very strong player preference for that line of French play, almost to the exclusion of all others. The game isn’t ruined by it (many popular games don’t have it), because there are so many other ways in which a game can excel, but because of it the game isn’t fully what I intended it to be either. In any case, for Gettysburg, I will be trying again, and will find it if I learned anything developing Napoleon’s Triumph or just got lucky.

Anyway, that’s it for this entry. I expect that the next entry will concern the box art, which I have shown already and might as well talk about. After that I have in mind a sort of mapboard strip tease, a series of entries concerning the mapboard, each of which will reveal something new about it. Mapboard design is an important and interesting subject, and also something I didn’t spend much time on with Napoleon’s Triumph, which should make it easy to keep the text fresh and interesting.