All Virginia is Here

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This is the sixth in a series of posts on the Battle of Gettysburg. To go to the previous post in the series click here here, and here to go back to the master post.

Reading about the Battle of Gettysburg, the third day is generally given less print than the first two. It was true of The Killer Angels and  The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command is true to the same form. The explanation is that what happened on July 3rd was fairly straightforward. Picket charged. He lost. Right?

Of course, it is a little more complicated than all that.

On the morning of July 3rd, 1964, Robert E. Lee likely desired to renew his attack, halted by nightfall on the 2nd, so as to capitalize on his “gains” of the day before. Indeed, on his left, Ewell’s assault on Culp’s Hill had captured enemy positions and on his right Longstreet had seized the high ground of the Peach Orchard. Neither, in hindsight, seem decisive objectives, but Lee hoped that the addition of fresh divisions and an early morning attack would push a weakened enemy over the edge.

At 4:30 AM, Ewell’s left wing resumed the attack. Successfully pushing forward would either seize the high ground on the Union’s far right or, failing that, pull reinforcements from Longstreet’s attack on the left. Unfortunately, the Union high command also took a special interest in the South’s gains from the previous night, and had planned their own assault in the same place and time. Doubly unfortunately, Longstreet’s dawn attack on the right was not taking place. The result was that the fighting on Culp’s Hill, while vigorous, produced no significant results.

When Lee visited Longstreet to find out what he had not initiated his own attack, he found that Longstreet was maneuvering to conduct the right-flanking maneuver which he had been advocating for the previous day. Over night, Longstreet had reconnoitered the Union position around Big Round Top, and found it to be open and vulnerable. Incorrectly, it should be added. His opposition was also very concerned about the possibility of a pre-dawn flanking maneuver, and had worked through the night to defend against it. Given the spectacular failure of Picket’s Charge, one is tempted to blame Lee for disrupting Longstreet’s planned attack, but it is by no means certain it would have fared any better.

Lee’s plan hinged on the simultaneous assault on both flanks of the Union line. Longstreet earns further criticism for not being prepared at first light, when better management of his (and particularly Pickett’s) Division could have has his Corps in place for a dawn assault. However, Coddington also wonders why Lee didn’t make his orders more clear, particularly given the miscommunications of the previous day. A departure from Lee’s usual management practice; he and Longstreet failed to meet between late morning on the 2nd and morning on the 3rd (when the attack from the right failed to materialize). Longstreet, after the fighting on the 2nd, did not feel up to a riding to a meeting with Lee. It is not clear if the written orders conveyed Lee’s desire for an attack at first light for the purpose of coordinating with the left.

It is only when Lee realizes that Longstreet will not come close to attacking simultaneously with Ewell and, further, that his plan will likely (again) take the better part of the morning to move into position that he re-evaluates the best use for Longstreet’s forces. Given the situation, he decides that an attack upon the center, the historical Pickett’s Charge, will be the best use of Longstreet’s Corps. It is pointed out that the union perception was that Ewell was conducting a demonstration to distract from the main attack from Longstreet. However, as much as it may have seemed that way at the time, this was not Lee’s, or Ewell’s, intention.

The remainder of the book’s coverage of Pickett’s charge tends to emphasize points that I knew less about In particular I knew little about the Union’s deployment to defend Cemetery Ridge and, in particular, about the several units that conducted flank attacks as the Southern forces neared the Union lines. We are used to thinking of Pickett’s charge as an absolute disaster from start to finish, a disaster that should have been obvious at the get-go. Much of Coddington’s description is from Lee’s standpoint, and explaining why this rationally appeared to be a good, and maybe even the best, move. He does admit that for the attack to succeed, dozens of things all had to go just right – a practical impossibility, but theoretically conceivable. He does not have much to say, although he does mention it, about what I have read before as the ultimate criticism of Pickett’s Charge. What if it had been successful, and the Confederates had their now battered brigades standing atop Cemetery ridge? Meade was holding much of the 6th Corps in reserve. So even if they won “The Charge,” is there any possibility for the South to turn that into victory by winning the next battle; withstanding the counterattack?

As always, such speculation can only go so far. Coddington seems more concerned with addressing specific criticisms where the available records contradict the accusations. Pickett’s Charge does provide plenty of opportunity for that.

The final chapter of the book is about the Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg back into Virginia. While the historical details are presented, much of the focus is on the criticism, then and now, that Meade has received for his lack of aggressiveness. The argument is that, with Lee having crippled his army with the Pickett’s Charge assault, Meade could have ended the war by seizing the initiative, trapping the Army of Northern Virginia in Pennsylvania, and destroying it.

Coddington largely defends Meade. He cites Meade’s own correspondence as evidence that he genuinely sought a decisive battle with Lee; that he did not prefer to let him escape as many accused. Further, he suggests that most of Meade’s decisions and commands were reasonable, given the state of his own army. While everyone recognizes the depleted condition of Lee’s armies, we must also remember that the Army of the Potomac had also been severely bloodied. Confederate casualties are less well documented that union losses at the battle. And while, as a proportion of the total force, the Confederate numbers were higher, the absolute losses were close to equal divided between the two sides. In addition, with Reynolds killed and Hancock injured, Meade had lost his best commanders.

The one decision that Coddington does hold against Meade was the final act of the campaign. Lee had retreated to the Potomac, but was unable to cross because of flood waters and because Union cavalry raids had destroyed the pontoon bridge Lee had used coming north. Meade moved his army South and was preparing to attack a corned Lee. On July 13th, although uncertain about Lee’s disposition, Meade was prepared to launch a “reconnaissance in force” which could be turned into a full-scale assault if he found weakness in Lee’s positions. The night before he held a “war council” where his subordinates largely advised against such an attack. Taking their council, he delayed. When he executed essentially the same maneuver of July 14th, he found that Lee had withdrawn his forces and was escaping across the Potomac.

Meade was roundly criticized, and somewhat unfairly, for relying on these meetings with his Corps commanders before making decisions. In this case, Coddington concedes the point. Clearly Meade should have relied on his own instincts rather than allow himself to be dissuaded, given that he made essentially the same maneuver one day later. He also speculates as to the outcome of the battle, had it taken place on the 13th. Those who advised against such an attack believed that Lee had created an strong defensive position, and that an attack against him would have failed. Inspections of the South’s entrenchments after their evacuation suggest that may be right. However, Coddington believes Meade’s plan, which would begin with a probing of Lee’s defensive, could have prevented a serious reversal. There are also plenty today who believe that Meade would have crushed Lee and, with no avenue of escape, forced him to surrender. Lee himself wrote that he was disappointed that Meade did not attack him – clearly he thought he would have won a defensive battle.

Given the wide variety of opinions, this would seem a beautiful situation for a speculative scenario. Coddington estimates that the Union mustered around 80,000 men and officers to about 50,000 under Lee. The ground that would have been fought on is well established – because there was no more room to maneuver at that point. And yet, I am unable to find any example of a user-made scenario for any of the games I have. The one treatment I located as part of the John Tiller/HPS Campaign Gettysburg. Several variations on the hypothetical fight are among its 314 scenarios. It is really difficult to justify dropping $40 on a 13-year-old revamp of a 22-year-old game.

You Should’ve Let Me Go to the Right

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This is the fifth in a series of posts on the Battle of Gettysburg. To go to the previous post in the series click here here, and here to go back to the master post.

The second day of the Battle of Gettysburg is often described through the individual engagements of brigades or even regiments. Although the attack was conceived as a massive coordinated assault by a significant fraction of the Confederate Army encompassing both the right and left wings, individual pieces of that assault can be looked at in isolation. In fact, in many cases, the smaller engagements took place sequentially, and can be pieced together to tell a story.

Nevertheless, distilling the entire second day to, for example, Chamberlain’s counter charge on Little Round Top does not capture what happened in the more than six hours of fighting from 4PM on July 2nd, 1861.

In The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, author Coddington details many, if not most, of the pieces of that engagement. He particularly looks at issues where controversy or second-guessing has called into question whether mistakes were made, and whether better leadership might have changed the outcome of the battle.

In his telling, the most important feature of the day was Sickles’ decision to place his Corps forward of the Union line of battle on Cemetery Ridge. It was the vulnerability of his units that put the North the most at risk of a breakthrough, perhaps at any time throughout the three day battle. While speculating about all the things that didn’t happen is bound to be inconclusive, one might imagine that had Sickles not been out of place, the situation for the Union could only have improved.

In backing this claim, Coddington points out that Lee believed that Longstreet’s direct attack was flanking the Union position on Cemetery Ridge. Even the request (and partial attempt) by Hood to envelope the Union line by moving to the right and over the Round Tops assumed that he would find those hills unoccupied and providing an undefended route into the enemy’s rear area. Had Sickles been in his ordered position and had Longstreet attacked, as ordered, up the Emmitsburg Road, there would have been Union troops to Sickles’ left which could have hit Longstreet’s right flank.

Given that, Longstreet’s delay until 4PM may have in fact been fortuitous, in that it gave Sickles time to make his mistake.

The speculative (and quite probably gamey) deviations of my previous posts put aside, I return to Scourge of War: Gettysburg to look at a depiction of the afternoon and evening of that day that is more closely aligned with reality.

When I last wrote about SoW:Gettysburg, I was struggling to like the game. In that last battle, while I didn’t have the enforced difficulty turned all the way up, I tried to play as the commander, dispatching orders instead of micromanaging the lowest-level units. And it did make for better gameplay.

This time around, I actually reset a couple of options to allow the game to enforce this play style. I limited the camera to close to my commander unit, I required all orders to be sent by courier, and I restricted the view of units on the map. No “cheating” this time around – mostly to stop my ineptitude with the controls from causing me to do things I don’t want to do.

After taking a little break, the barrier of the user interface becomes all the more obvious. It took me a couple of restarts to understand even the setup of the scenario. As the player, I am General Evander Law, a brigade commander under General Hood. However, I have under my command not only all of Hood’s Division, but General Hood himself. Law’s own brigade is commanded by a colonel. After a few minutes (and these are timed scenarios, so this counts against you) of struggling with the command structure, I finally had dispatched a whole bunch of orders, and every brigade except for my own had responded. After much riding around and order sending, I finally found my dear colonel hundreds of yards ahead of the brigade, scouting out the area to which I’d ordered him to deploy the unit. Or I thought I had. The “move” command is in the same menu, but higher up, that the “move unit” command. Under duress, I’ve frequently dispatched not the unit, but only the commander. And that’s what I had done here.

I restarted.

The user interface is meant to be simplified when using couriers for orders. Once can enter commands through a orders interface, creating a “note” made up of structure text. However, one can also send a courier by directly ordering a unit over which you don’t have direct control. This makes sense from a design standpoint. You’ve clicked on a unit, you see where it is, and you want it to advance down the road a bit. Do you really want to get lost in an order-composing interface when a pair of clicks would convey all the same information? The problem is, I frequently find myself losing track of what is active. Moving my commander around and inspecting units, I sometimes give a subordinate a command where I mean only to re-position myself. I spent much of the second try working to place my artillery so as to threaten the enemy. At some point I realized that the command, to which I’d been frantically sending orders, still hadn’t move, but a single battery had moved well forward into position. Not clear at all how I managed that, and even less clear how to get stray cannons back under proper hierarchical control.

devilsden

Oh those dots again. A nice view of the ground surrounding Devil’s Den, which Hood’s men will soon capture.

At some point, probably close to the screenshot above, I received a dispatch that Hood had been wounded, and I was now in command of his entire division. I started looking around for my additional units, and found none. I had, of course, been commanding all of Hood’s units from the beginning. Were they responding to my commands, or did they have some default orders that were overriding mine? Would I even ever know the difference?

Probably time to restart again.

The dispatch system is probably fairly decent for depicting the limitations of command in the heat of battle. During an attack, a general might be able to commit reserves or could ride up and try to inspire his men, but plotting exact lines of advance, and ordering specific positions should be difficult.

On the other hand, before an attack starts, commanders would have used maps and scouting reports to formulate detailed plans of how the attack was to proceed. Perhaps I’d feel much better about this game if it had an initial “planning” interface, using a better set of tools, to lay out what the intention for all the units is.

The other way to look at it is these tend to be short scenarios, so the “planning” is already done for you. Assuming you understand what that plan is, you begin playing on top of that plan that’s been already created.

So, now having a better idea of what the scenario entails I start again. This time, I will focus on my own brigade, until the game tells me my command is otherwise. Upon start, I change all the commands of my subordinate units to direct control, to get rid of the situation where I have that extra commander (the colonel) essentially holding my spot in the command structure.

Almost immediately, I send one or two units off in the wrong direction as I’m trying to move the command unit. Oops. Restart.

This time, I am careful to get ever unit under direct control before I start sending commands to move. Successfully at last. I will assume my orders are those given to Law by Hood in the real battle. While the rest of Hood’s Division attacks along Emmitsburg Rd.,  I will attempt to flank them on the right, over the two Round Tops. The timing of the scenario starts us as Union sharpshooters are spotted in Devil’s Den, so technically all of Hood’s Division is already deviating from the plan. But in particular, the swinging of Law’s Brigade to the right was a small attempt at doing what Hood and Longstreet wanted to do all along. And a controversial one.

As the Gettysburg Campaign book points out, Longstreet’s impassioned defense of his plan for the second, to move to the right, is based on what he wrote after the fact. From the record before the attack, it isn’t clear what Longstreet is actually asking. Is he suggesting a strategic move to the right – disengaging and shifting to better ground? Or is suggesting a tactical move for the right – move the axis of attack to be more from the South? Both concepts have problems, and are far from a plan. If we watched the move, we probably assume that on the morning of the 2nd he is probably arguing for the latter. Given the failure to get his Corps into position until 4PM, one wonders what an even wider flanking maneuver would have looked like.

Longstreet comes under much criticism on the morning of the 2nd. Once it was decided he would be the primary assault, it almost seems that his reluctance about the details of the plan interfered with the execution. Coddington characterizes his logistics of that morning as amateurish, very much in contrast to what the Army and the Corps were capable of. Both the poorly executed march, as well as a sloppy execution assembling the Corp for attack, lead to an early morning assault taking place in the early evening.

But what effect did that have on the battle? As I hinted at the start of this article, Longstreet’s timing, as unintentional as it may have been, could have been just right to catch Sickles at maximum disadvantage. Longstreet certainly believed he could have done better, but we don’t know that he would have.

Perhaps Hoods decision to send Law on a right-flanking maneuver helps answer the question, or maybe not. Clearly the assault on Little Round Top by Law’s brigade was insufficient. They had marched all day, then marched over Big Round Top, then assaulted enemy infantry where they didn’t expect to find them. Given that Chamberlain’s Mainers were out of ammo when they charged, doesn’t that prove that if more of Hoods Division would have been there, they would have taken Little Round Top? The Killer Angels even proposes the lack of water as a culprit. Law’s men were not only exhausted from marching, but also thirsty. The details sent off to collect drinking water didn’t return in time for the attack. Maybe the extra organization that may have come from supporting that attack, from Lee all the way down, would have won the day and the battle.

On the other hand, Hood was criticized for pulling a brigade out of the main attack against orders. It was on the other side of Little Round Top, in the area of the Peach Orchard and the Wheat Field, where the Southerners may have come closest to breaking the Union line. So could that failure be blamed on a brigade diverted to far to the left?

Above My Pay Grade

Playing now at what I think the scenario intends for me, I will take control of my Brigade and move against Big Round Top, operating basically independently from the rest of Hood’s Division under AI Control.

biground

Scaling Big Round Top. In the actual battles, I would have been meeting enemy pickets, but we’re playing with regiments here. The 99th PA is well off to my left, in the Devil’s Den area.

The weird graphic static on the screenshots aside, the engine really does a beautiful job of capturing the landscape. With the camera tied to my general here, must slowly climb the hill along with my infantry.

theview

Top of Big Round Top, facing North East, behind the enemy lines. Quite a view from the top.

When we get to the peak, we are rewarded with quite a view of the surrounding countryside. In the screenshot above, I glance out of the rear of the union positions as I wait for all my regiments to catch up with me. Looking the other way, I can see all of Longstreet’s positions. This is going to be some ground worth keeping.

Once again, I run into some control issues. I now want to fan out my regiments and probe the valley between the two hills for enemy units. The problem is, because the slop in front of me is so steep, I can’t click on the “ground” where I want to order my units to. After jiggering around the general’s position, I finally gave up and gave the orders by setting their position on the map. The problem there is that, on the map, I can’t see the terrain features, so it is harder to know exactly where I am sending them.

littleround

There they are. It’s hard to see on the smaller image, but if you look just below and to the right of that golden eagle (marking the Little Round Top objective), you’ll see a regiment deployed in defense.

As they start up and over, some boys in blue starting flickering in an out of view. The engine only draws “spotted” units, and the terrain/unit size is a bit abstracted, so the calculated visibility is sometimes at odds with the graphical rendering visibility. I hover over the screenshot key so I get the picture when the unit is actually “there.”

Right about this time, I again get the dispatch that Hood has been shot and I am in command of the entire division. After an exercise of reassigning the units to “AI” control, so as to put them under full command of my promoted subordinate colonel, I’m off to the rear.

My first observation (granted, based largely on my previous playthroughs) is that all the divisional artillery is out of range of the actual battle. So my first order of business is to ride back to their locations, pick out what looks like a location with better visibility, and order them forward. In retrospect, given the short duration of the scenario, there was little hope of getting the artillery successfully deployed. Further, it would have been more efficient to ride to where I thought some decent artillery positions were and, if finding them, send the orders back from there. It seemed more appropriate to at least see how whether or not the artillery was engaged (they weren’t, they were out of range) before moving them.

That completed, I rode forward to find the battle. When I got there, I had a hard time figuring out what I was looking at.

denagain

Another Devil’s Den shot, this time from the top. By the time I got here, my guys had control (although not “control”) of the position, and seemed to be sweeping the enemy from the area.

From the top of the Devil’s Den position, I could see that all of my “new” brigades were engaged with enemies to my front. But it was kind of a mess. Some were actively fighting, some were withdrawing from the fight, and a few were working there way around the rough terrain, unable as I was to get a clear view of the battle. I decided my best bet at this point was to ride forward and try to directly assist those in the thick of it.

Riding down off Devil’s Den, I realized the terrain had obscured at least half of the fighting from my previous position. Fortunately, though, as I arrived, it seemed that my fellas were just about to send the Union boys running. I watched as several of the regiments took off after them.

At this point, I took a look towards my old brigade, off to my left. Things didn’t look so good for them. They were still assaulting the Union position on the slope of Little Round Top, but by this time they seemed to be outnumbered (with respect to those units remaining on the field.) So I took direct control of two of Robertson’s regiments, and moved them into the fighting, into the rear of the Union line. It worked like a charm. Strong Vincent’s brigade, now beset by us from both sides, began to crumble.

rearattack

My bias towards my own brigade shines through. Seeing my boys in trouble, I grab the 4th and 5th Texas from Robertson, and swing in behind Colonel Chamberlain’s defenders. They’re not going to like this.

Once again, I ran out of time. The scenario ended and I got an terrible score – worse, I think than the last time.

Engagements at this scale can be tough. Victory conditions based on time might be to add an artificial “challenge” and replayability to the scenario, but they also reflect the limits of the tactical combat model. After an hour of fighting, some units run out of ammo and others are resupplied. One side or the other may be able to bring in reinforcements. In the larger scheme of things, if general is told to take a hill in the next hour, he can’t spend an hour and a half or two hours doing it. It’s hard to tell in this case.

It was also another showcase of the good, the bad, and the ugly of this game engine. As before, it emphasizes that this engine is designed for the higher levels of command at the higher levels of command difficulty. Some of the weaknesses also jump out, particularly with this fight. I happened to also play the scenario from the other side – playing as Vincent. With all the detailed terrain and unit depiction, one notices what isn’t show. For the defense of Little Round Top, a key part of the Union’s success was that they were able to take a good position on a steep hill and literally dig in. They have built defensive walls with earth and stone, allowing to shoot from partial cover. It is difficult to position units relative to existing terrain and I don’t believe there is a way to simulate “digging in.” This Union scenario really doesn’t give much time (if playing with a locked camera) to even scout the area before the enemy shows up.

Scourge of War, you sure make it tough to love you sometimes.

Return the master post of Gettysburg articles or go on to the next article.

Early in the Morning

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This is the fourth in a series of posts on the Battle of Gettysburg. To go to the previous post in the series click here here, and here to go back to the master post.

In an earlier post, I looked at the first day of Gettysburg with a number of different games. Taking a look now at, not one, but two of the three day scenarios beginning on the second day. Obviously, there is quite a departure from the historic situation. Also, perhaps inevitably, the action gets started at sunup, rather than taking until 4 in the afternoon to get situated, as the actual battle did.

Some History

As I continue reading The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, the author begins his analysis of the second day with the big picture, and several of the major criticisms of the commanders on that day. For Meade, an accusation was made that he was afraid to confront Lee at Gettysburg. One of the stories tells it that, on the night of July 1st he met with his corps commanders and proposed withdrawing from Gettysburg and falling back on Washington. In this story, it was only the unanimous insistence of his subordinates that overrode his instincts, resulting in the victory at Gettysburg.

This scenario seems to have been dreamed up and or created as a political attack on Meade after he was removed from command of the Army of the Potomac. The culprit here was Sickles, who has justifiably fallen under criticism for his actions on the morning/early afternoon of July 2nd, and his attempt to shift the blame to Meade. Specifically, Sickles has claimed that he moved his Corp forward (ahead of the Union line, into the “Peach Orchard”) due to a combination of a) an absence of clear orders from Meade and b) a desire to force decisive, victorious confrontation with the enemy in the face of Meade’s reluctance.

While the written record has been used to support Sickle’s version of events and helped create the narrative of Meade wanting to withdraw, the author believes the records for Meade’s preparing withdrawal are all based one of his alternate plans of forming a defensive line in Maryland. Evidence would support that he no longer considered this an option once he was engaged in Gettysburg. Furthermore, the written record shows that Meade, shortly after arrival on the field, began making plans for attacking Lee’s position. However, he desired to make use the 6th Corps, still en route to Gettysburg, so as to attack with a full corps not yet depleted through engagement. The timing of the arrival meant that he was already defending against Longstreet’s attack before he could organize an attack of his own.

Longstreet, and his argument with Lee, is the other major … in his analysis, Lee’s decision is defended at it is Longstreet’s leadership that is called into question.

Falling Behind

I left off at night on July 1st, with my union troops still in command of town of Gettysburg itself. As I stated then, my plan was to rest my armies where they were, figuring my computer opponent would do the same. My historical counterpart would never have taken that risk, but to me it seemed to be better to have fresh troops coming in than to have tired troops in place.

The result is that on sunrise on July 2nd, I’m fighting something like the historical battle of the evening of July 1st. I have week positions north of the town which are being overwhelmed by the Confederate numbers, but as those attacks are delayed, I’m bringing up what will ultimately result in superior numbers into a stronger defensive position south of the town.

tobriandtobriand

Posey attempts to dislodge P.R. de Trobriand of Trobriand’s Brigade, and the scene is reenacted just for you.

The particular situation that develops as a result of all this exposes some of the weaknesses of the Civil War Generals 2 engine, problems that weren’t evident on the first day of the fight.

It is the characteristic of many single-player wargames that a computer opponent that might competently react to a player’s attacks falls short when required to go on the offensive against a player. The Battle of Gettysburg is characterized by the Confederates, despite the odds, seizing the initiative in three separate attacks spread over three days. If the battle is to play out historically (with a union player), the Confederate AI must show similar initiative.  In the game, the computer does aggressively press the attack. However, the actual disposition of the armies at Gettysburg resulted, to a large extent, as the union reacted to several attempts of the South to flank and envelope their defensive position. As we can see below, the AI has concentrated its forces in my center, pushing through the town of Gettysburg. Thus my defense is more-or-less a straight line.

Concentrating all my forces in the center, in this way, exposes another feature of a brigade-level model at this scale (200 yard hexes?). Each hex is restricted to holding a single brigade (with a few exceptions, like artillery), so reserves must stacked up in hexes behind the “front line.” This creates a situation (illustrated below) where nearly every hex from the front back 4-5 or more hexes is occupied by a friendly unit; either a fresh reserve, or a depleted unit that has been pulled back to recover. In turn, that prevents much in the way of maneuvering, as all the space to move is taken up. All of this may, reasonably, simulate the command issues that would prevent rapidly shuffling armies back and forth, but it creates a much more claustrophobic feel to the battle that doesn’t really match reality, nor does it reflect other games.

noon

By midday, a line of battle has formed just south of the town, and I’m subject to a Confederate frontal assault. The result is that the characteristic “fishhook” is absent from this version of the battle.

Noting the development of the battle moving into the early afternoon, it is a stark contrast to the real battle where nothing of note had happened yet. The fighting of July 2nd began only at 4PM and continued until darkness prevented further maneuver. The game, pretty much any game, incentivizes immediate and continuous attack. At least one side has an advantage and would be wasting time/victory point opportunities is he wasn’t engaging the enemy and rolling for damage.

In reality, the morning and early afternoon wasn’t silent. There was pretty much a constant engagement of skirmishers on the Union right, but as far as the brigade-on-brigade, full scale fighting – nothing. The difference, perhaps, is in the command and control. As a player, computer or human, you simply move your units, whereas the real battle required coordination and communication up and down a chain of command. Some games in this period, The Guns of Gettysburg being one notable example, rules are put in place to put a premium on organized attacks. Such rules can be massaged to duplicate the tempo of the civil war battlefield, recreating the partial day lull that happened. A ground up simulation may be impossible. Knowing what we know now (as any wargame commander would), Lee and Longstreet would never have delayed their attack until 4PM. So much so, that one wonders why it seemed at all feasible at the time. The heat, the miscommunications, the friction between personalities, all created a unique unfolding of events that might never be reproduced with a roll of dice or a draw of cards.

As 4PM comes, I’m actually moving my arriving 6th Corps around the Confederate flanks and launching my own attack.

Getting Ahead

For a different view, I’ve dug out an even older game on the subject, Age of Rifles, which also features a 3-day Gettysburg scenario. In this version, on the first day the AI enemy very aggressively pursued me through the town of Gettysburg and, in fact, began assaulting my positions on Cemetery and Culp’s Hills. As I had mirrored my historical counterparts and began readying a fall-back position there, I easily held those defenses through nightfall. However, the computer opponent was also making a concerted effort to get around my left flank throughout the late afternoon of July 1st. As a result, I found myself having to create the full “fishhook” defensive position down Cemetery Ridge and onto the Round Tops to ward off any end runs.

predawnaor

The sun has not yet come up on July 2nd, and I’ve already fought a full engagement between the town of Gettysburg and my positions on the hills.

The screenshot above shows that the enemy encamped within rifle range of my defensive positions. If your eyes can manage it, the minimap (orangish square in the lower right) shows the full “fish hook” beyond the borders of the tactical view. The bright white is the Confederate and the off-white is me, the Union.

The Other Sandbox

Some time ago I wrote about the trinity of games for different levels of combat. My point was that any game released dealing with the Cold War era needed to be better than the existing scenario available for the appropriate sandbox games.

Several years before releasing The Operation Art of War, (although Harpoon is nearly a decade older than the others), Norm Kroger designed the game Age of Rifles. Released by SSI and actually called Wargame Construction Set III: Age of Rifles 1846-1905 and, as the name implies, it was supposed to be a user-extensible system for creating battles from after the time of Napoleon but before the First World War.

Age of Rifles followed two years after Wargame Construction Set II: Tanks! These two were largely unrelated, except for the publisher, to the original Wargame Construction Set released in 1986. That original package was a work based on the game designs of Roger Damon, namely Operation Whirlwind, Field of Fire and Panzer Grenadier. The concept was that, by making the statics of units fully editable, scenarios from the dawn of civilization to present time and beyond could be created and played. The reality was mixed. The graphics were considered mediocre, even for 1986, and the engine itself was limited.

With Wargame Construction Set II, SSI and Kroger created a game more limited in scope but more successful in execution. The game brought the series (and the work of Kroger) into modern (albeit 1994 modern) graphics and user interface. The scale was that of Panzer Blitz, and thus that of the Tiller series (the first of which, Battlefield: Bulge-Ardennes game out a year later). There are those who say, even today, that it is the best treatment of armored combat at that scale. I’ll have to take a look at it in a future post.

With Wargame Construction Set III, Kroger moved in the same time frame (probably not so coincidentally) as Tiller with Battleground: Gettysburg (actually quite co-incidentally, both are 1996 releases). Like Tanks! before it and The Operational Art of War to follow, while the game released with various scenarios available, the target was to enable the user to implement any period-appropriate (and then some) scenario desired. There are three different scales (technically 3X3 as map size and unit size can be set independently), and people continue to keep the system alive over 20 years on.

Age of Rifles was released the same year as the original Civil War Generals. Civil War Generals 2, which was released the following year, expanded on the original game by adding more battles to the campaign as well as enhancing the game with an open-ended scenario editor. Particularly the latter was ripe for comparison to Age of Rifles, itself heavily focused on American Civil War battles.

Very briefly, the compare and contrast between the two is that Age of Rifles has more detail in the tactical level, but a more sparse campaign interface. Civil War Generals 2 focuses on the campaign and, for better and for worse, simplifies the tactical level.

Several of the Age of Rifles feature make sense. I’ve taken the other side of the argument before, but there is a good argument that Civil War battles need a regimental level of maneuver. The more complex disposition of said regiments also seems important to this era. Do you chose to deploy for speed of movement? For offense? For defense? Do you spend turns, vulnerably digging in to enhance that defense? All very appropriate. But at what cost? The carpal tunnel syndrome resulting from having to drag a mouse over every regiment at Gettysburg repeatedly for almost 200 turns is a high price to pay for that additional flavor.

As this article hints at, the Age of Rifles AI seems to have the upper edge as well. The aggressiveness of the Confederates has exceeded that of their historical counterpart, and it has kept me on edge. Not to say there aren’t issues. Frequently routed units run towards the enemy rather than away, provoking a cycle of opportunity fire and counter fire. Of course, details like this can be dismissed if, perhaps, the attrition of a broken unit winds up historically accurate in the end. I’ve also witnessed some repeated cavalry charges against dug-in infantry that ended up, predictably, in utter failure. Over all above average performance, but with a real range of results in game. For example, on one turn the Confederate AI is aggressively trying to flank me, and on another turn I can see units camped out within the range of my rifles, deployed facing nothing in particular.

All this extra micromanagement provides more historical flavor, but it also risks creating ahistorical results. While certain aspects of command and control are modeled, one still commands every unit on every turn. Units with lowered morale become more difficult to command. Further, there is a loss-of-command that comes from splitting up a brigade that I don’t fully understand and have been too lazy to research in the manual. However, with every unit directed, I can do things like ride some cavalry into the enemy rear to spot his dispositions and then immediately began moving (within the same 20 minute turn) units in my own rear to react to that. There is no delay in communication and orders, and no apparently loss of control when sending a division or a corps winging through the woods in pursuit of an enemy flank.

It makes me wonder whether the computer AI benefits from some of these same cheats. If not, the answer may be simply one of discipline, holding the pace of one’s reactions to what is realistic from a battlefield communications standpoint.

The Best Defense

Returning to Day 2 of my game, I find myself suddenly adopting a 1800s mentality toward the battle.  As dawn arises, the Confederates immediately resume there assault on my positions, particularly the northern curve of the fishhook. For myself, I’ve filled out those defensive as the sun was setting the night before so, unlike Meade on July 2nd, I’m not worried about unoccupied positions on Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top. Furthermore, as I positioned units along my line and dug them in, additional arriving brigades were held in reserve. In particular, I’ve good a good chunk of fresh units hiding behind the round tops, waiting to see where they are needed.

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The battle begins furiously with Sunrise on July 2nd. Right off, I’m going to commit my reserve to try to outflank the enemy at the southern end of the line.

Similarly to Civil War Generals 2, although not quite to the extent, a reinforced defensive position starts to run into “crowd” issues. Here, there is a hex limit of two regiments (or substitute a battery) per. This means that to reinforce a front line unit that has been weakened or, perhaps, just run out of ammo, that unit has to be pulled from the line into available space behind the line. Then a fresh unit has to be moved into the front position, it being more vulnerable to enemy opportunity fire while doing so. Both these incoming and outgoing units need the same space behind the line, which also is filled by additional reserves. Having short interior lines is great, but it makes things really crowded in the dozen or so hexes right behind those lines.

With that handicap, it seems like only a matter of time before one of the Confederate results will see some success. If they manage to drive me out of my entrenched positions, it will be difficult to set up a fallback position – there’s just not much left space to move around from the Union’s historical position*. It strikes me that the best way to relieve pressure on my defensive troops is to go on the offensive in other parts of the battlefield. Specifically, I’m going to try a double envelopment, using the reserves to hit both flanks simultaneously (although concentrating on my own left).

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The in-game overview map. An hour or so has gone by, and I’ve found little resistance on that southern Confederate flank. Forward, boys, forward!

As the hour approaches noon, the right end of the Confederate line is starting come apart as I hit it from both sides. Of course, even as I’m still getting reinforcements, and I can see that the Confederates are too. (Of course we knew that, much of Longstreet’s corps arrived that day). It now just seems a matter of what gives first – my boy’s forward momentum, the Confederate position on Seminary Ridge or my wrist.

Return the master post of Gettysburg articles or go on to the next article.

*Not really true. Meade contemplated falling back further from what he perceived as a week position with Confederate troops on his left flank (Big Round Top) to a more defensible position behind Rock Creek, with Wolf’s Hill anchoring his right. The map in this scenario is big enough that such a position could probably be played. However, I’d rather go for the gold in a glorious charge than slog through the mundane task of pulling back from one defensive position to another. Especially since that was what I did on Day 1.

 

He Told Us Where We Stand

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The Day the Earth Stood Still came out in 1951, just as the Korean War was grinding to a stalemate. Korea is never mentioned in the movie, although the film’s Washington DC certainly has a very high military presence that indicates this is a “wartime” setting.

As seems to be popular with movies of the era, the film has plenty of famous locations shown. The monuments and sights of Washington DC are featured prominently, even though the actual filming took place elsewhere. Similarly, the reaction of “the World” to events is show by flashing people in London, Paris, etc., set against some landmark scenery from each location. At least, all of the place except one. The shot of Moscow is an obvious fake, for obvious reasons.

In general, the cinematography is a mixed bag. Along the same lines as above, the film opening shot is a descent from outer space. It’s meant to, I’m sure, dazzle the film-goer with sights he’s probably never seen outside of the theater. Today, the “special effects” shot from space looks pretty hokey. Once actual footage from aircraft is mixed in, it begins to look a lot better. From a technical standpoint, that pretty much sets the stage for the whole film. The special effects are frightfully bad.  The shots of regular people look considerable better. Particularly closeups stood out with that genuine style that seems unique to the black-and-white medium.

The film’s story also improves once in moves away from the space man and laser beams of the opening. I initially found the alien pretty annoying as he smirked at the petty humans around him, but once he decides to hide himself among the hoi polloi, the character and the story improve.

I’m quite sure I watched this at least once as a kid, but I honestly didn’t remember anything except the space man and laser beams. If you also don’t remember the story, I’m going to go ahead a ruin it for you. He dies.

But seriously…

The concept is that this man from outer space comes to our planet with a warning. As our warlike species is developing the technology for intergalactic travel, the various aliens in our vicinity who, up to this point have been content to leave us alone, now grow very concerned about our ability to threaten them via nuclear and space technology. They’ve developed a Doomsday Machine, of sorts, that we risk triggering, resulting in the annihilation of our species if we don’t find within us the capacity for peace and love. Or something like that.

The suspension of disbelief for the 1951 audience may have been fairly high when it comes to science fiction. I like my science fiction hard, as I like my… well, never mind that. Point is, I like the “science” to make some sense. This one has a lot of holes, some of which significantly distract from the story. As an example, there are some things the aliens know with perfect knowledge, and other things they don’t understand at all. Is there any possible logic to it except that it made for clever dialog?

Another incongruous detail to my sensibility, likely generational, is the portrayal of the military. First off, there are men in uniform everywhere. Street scenes almost always feature a soldier in uniform as one of the bystanders. This may have been normal and/or expected in post-World War II America, or at this phase of the Korean War. It may even be normal for Washington DC today – I tried to avoid that wretched hive of scum and villainy if at all possible. I was also impressed with the eagerness and rapidity that martial law could be declared and implemented. Furthermore, the portrayal of martial law is as an unequivocal common good. The populous and the audience accepts the quick intervention of the military as the right and proper defense against an unknown threat – this despite the fact that it is ineptitude by members of the same that escalate the crisis in the first place, several times throughout the film shooting alien Klaatu.

By comparison, the source for the story, a magazine published short story “Farewell to the Master” is written (and set) before the U.S.’s entry into the Second World War. In that version, it is a “lunatic” who murders Klaatu. He is killed, in fact, before he can do anything to explain his presence. Thus the message of “Peace and Love or Die!” is not part of the story. Also, the resurrection of Klaatu by the robot, included in both the movie and the book, has a little more SciFi continuity in the book form. In that, the robot simply struggles to recreate Klaatu (from his voice? well, OK) and, ultimately fails to be entirely successful. Klaatu is regenerated, but imperfectly, and quickly dies again. No such explanation, except for some pseudo-spirituality, surrounds the movie Klaatu’s recovery from his second and fatal shooting.

The simultaneous acceptance of martial law and criticism of the military (the shootings plus the failure of the “brass” to appreciate Klaatu’s mission) is in fact in line with the message of the filmmaker. If not already obvious, it is a post-World War II call for increasing the role of the United Nations in world affairs, and the deemphasization, if not elimination, of nationalism.

It also explains what, to me, looks like a contradiction. Even to the most imaginative, it is hard to understand how any process of the United Nations could approach Gort’s Doomsday Machine. The best the U.N. was capable of was (and remains) bringing in a “coalition of the willing” on the side with the casus belli. The more comprehensible analogy is the submission of the individual and his freedom to the power of the State. Thus the State, as just ruler, deserves deference when mobilizing to protect us. It deserves scorn when it acts the self-centered individual, and squabbles with other States.

The filmmaker may or may not have fully thought through this analogy, beyond what was necessary to make his point. The ability of the State to annihilate the individual who breaks his “social contract” is not only valid, but necessary. Without the, as modern parlance would have it, “nuclear option,” there will remain insufficient motivation to accept the social contract except when it is convenient. That may seem extreme, but 65 years of experience with U.N. intervention has not lead to the realization of that ideal, peaceful world. The Superpowers may not (as of yet) started World War III, but it unlikely that the U.N. has been a particular deterrent. Where the U.N. has intervened, questions do arise about the judgment, effectiveness, and motivation of that intervention. Furthermore, wars between minor countries continue, and the major powers continue to bypass the U.N. when global politics make it necessary.

The film may be dated and the sentiment may be naive, but the debate over the benefits of an omnipotent but benevolent overlord continue apace. In the U.S. we continue to fight against the ever-growing power of our government. In places like England, the extent of control that the government exercises over the populace would have been unthinkable in 1951. Similarly, the push towards one-world government and the dissolution of national boarders continues to gain momentum.

Perhaps “Klaatu barada nikto” is the only real answer.

Pulsating to the Back Beat

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This story is mostly true.

We are warned tongue in cheek, as the film CBGB opens with some comic book -style drawing and narration, that this is not mean to be a documentary. Shortly thereafter the main character, Hilly Kristal (founder of CBGBs) while still a toddler, tumbles out of his crib to wander nearly 3 miles through rural New Jersey.

The movie is a telling of Kristal’s (played by the late Alan Rickman) founding of CBGBs and, with it, the founding of the New York punk rock scene. I found it funny and entertaining, and a nice way to give some attention to some of the folks behind the scenes of the names we all (at least, those of us of a certain age) know so well.

The movie was hammered by the critics and did poorly at the box office. The criticisms often seem petty. The Ramones sang the wrong song, or the stickers weren’t accurate. One review complained that the Patti Smith song (which was obviously an original Patti Smith recording, not the actress) had a piano in it where the stage setup did not.

Lighten up, Francis.

I managed to make it to CBGBs but once. If I recall, it may have been ? and the Mysterians and, for some reason, possibly some version of the Dickies. The point, of course, was to visit the location, not to hear the bands. It was a long night.

If you lived with any of the music of the 80s and 90s, or quite possibly if you didn’t, this seems like a movie that you would want to see. It’s a shame the reviews mean so few see it. Perhaps, like me, you stumble across this quite by accident, much like the late Mr. Kristol and his iconic nightclub.

 

 

The Longest Movie

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Clocking in at 2 hours and 58 minutes, The Longest Day is hardly the longest movie Hollywood has made. Heck, it’s not even the longest movie I’ve watched this week. However, the 1962 movie hasn’t aged so well and can at times seem a bit endless. Of course, that is part of the point – to show the massive scale of the Normandy invasion.

The Longest Day was released in what is called the Roadshow format. This is where movies, generally very long ones, were given limited releases. First to only the major cities and then to limited theatres after that. Showings were restricted to, perhaps, only 2 shows per day and perhaps less on off days. Reservations might be required and often an intermission was granted. All of this, in addition to creating a “buzz” for the film, also was accompanied by a premium ticket price.

The film was very popular and did quite well for itself. It features, quite possibly, every major male actor of the time and covers the entirety of the D-Day landing operation by focusing on the details. The writing of Cornelius Ryan is, to me, very obvious featuring as he does little details an vignettes. Ryan also authored the script, which based on his own book. It came out at a time when America’s Second World War heroes were growing older, but were still among us. The next generation was asking “What did you do in the great World War Two?”

The first thing that hit me, as I watch this week, is that the actors are all too old. With very few exceptions, the soldiers are not played by teenagers (as our soldiers so often are) but by middle aged men. The real kick in the teeth was General James Gavin. At the time of his film, he had recently turned 37. He had been promoted to Brigadier General at the age of 36, making him one of the youngest generals in the army and, in fact, upon his promotion to Major General before Market Garden was the youngest U.S. Division commander in the war. So imagine my horror when he is portrayed by an actor, Robert Ryan, who is barely younger (in real life) than the general and is trying to portray the man nearly 20 years younger than they are.

My image of General Gavin was shaped by the “other” Cornelius Ryan’s book-turned-film, A Bridge Too Far. In that film, made fifteen years later, the 6-months aged Gavin is played by actor Ryan O’Neal (so many Ryans!). That choice was also criticized as Ryan O’Neal was not only a year younger than the Gavin he was portraying, but he retained a particularly youthful look. O’Neal, While Gavin did not necessarily look like Ryan O’Neal, he did look youthful (as he was) for a general officer.

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Gavin (in late 1944), O’Neal as Gavin (1977), and Ryan (1961). One of these things is not like the others.

Perhaps more egregious, although less obvious, John Wayne plays (then) Major Vandervoort, who was (at the time, mind you) ten years his junior.

I’m also ruined by modern special effects. Saving Private Ryan has forever altered how we’re going to view D-Day, and 1962 special effects technology just falls flat. In particular, I notice how many of the outdoor combat scenes are obviously filmed on an indoor soundstage. It makes everything look claustrophobic and peculiarly geometrical. The fighting ends up and unreasonably close range and with the then Hollywood effects. Of course, there are other major battle scenes which are very impressive, and all the more so for having been created before computerized special effects.

Finally, to add insult to injury. One special characteristic of the film at that time is that it foreign characters (German, French) were played by foreign actors who spoke in their native language. The trend at the time, particularly for World War II films, was for the Germans to speak German-accented English. The film was released in the theater subtitled. However, in the Netflix version I elected to watch this week, they are using an all-English language cut (which was also made at the time).

I feel like I’ve been cheated out of one of the saving graces of this otherwise aged film.

All my complaints aside, the film is still popular today and remains unique in its scope, attempting to capture the full scale of the multinational Normandy operations. Such a thing, like the massive invasion itself, may never again be attempted.

 

The Nature of My Game

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On the 100th year anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Austrian television showed a dramatization of that event as told through the eyes of a government investigator. Available in America as Sarajevo, the original German title is Das Attentat – Sarajevo 1914.

The piece is filmed well, with nice period scenery, costumes, and firearms. A scene nears the end shows some beautiful period wargaming, with big painted blocks and arrows on a large map of Serbia.

The story itself mixes some interesting historical facts with pure, speculative fiction. It is a fact that the assassins appeared to have missed their mark. The initial attack, with a bomb, resulted in only minor injuries and the royal couple was taken to safety. The shooter only succeeded because a) the crown prince went back out on roughly the original route b) got lost along the way and c) stopped his car within a few feet of his ultimate assassin. It’s a series of errors that seems almost impossible.

In this version of the story, it is the “powers that be” that are behind the assassination of the Archduke. They simultaneously provoke an excuse to attack Serbia (itself having factual basis enough) and eliminate a moderate voice in the future ruling of the empire (sounds made up.) An investigator is assigned to get to the “truth” behind the assassination, with the expectation that all fingers will point to the Serbian government. When the investigator begins to see signs of the conspiracy, we come to see that all along he has been a tool in the plot to launch a war.

If viewed as pure fiction, I found it to be an entertaining tale of intrigue. If you begin to ascribe modern political meaning to the story, it might leave a bad taste behind. To be generous, a version of the story that portrays the Serbs as the victim may just be a revisionist counterpoint to several decades of the Serbs being Europe’s villain. At its worst, it seems to be trying to conflate the Nazi’s, the Austrian Empire, the Kaiser’s Germany, as all versions of the same evil confounding the good struggle of the workers to be free of their capitalist oppressors.

I stuck with the pure fiction, and just enjoyed the tale.

We Are Met on a Great Battle-field

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Having decided to re-read Michael Shaara’s book The Killer Angels I began, a month or so ago, a walk through several games, books, and movies dealing with the Battle of Gettysburg.

The purpose of this post is to organize that information and link it to a new timeline, to cover the Victorian Era and the period surrounding the American Civil War.

Gettysburg posts (in order of their appearance) are as follows:

  1. That first post.
  2. More on Scourge of War: Gettysburg.
  3. A discussion of the Gettysburg Campaign, beyond the details of the battle.
  4. Day One. July 1st, 1863 and Civil War Generals 2.
  5. Day Two and the classics, exploring some alternate realities.
  6. Day Two, as it was, returning in particular to Scourge of War: Gettysburg.
  7. Day Three and the conclusion of the Gettysburg Campaign.

Columbus Took a Poo

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I remember the first time I ever played Civilization II.

At the time, I studiously avoided purchasing video games – for several reasons. First, I wasn’t making a whole lot of money, and my budget didn’t need a new category of expenditure. Second, I knew it had the potential to become a massive time suck, and didn’t want to go that route. I already had some bad Minesweeper and Solitaire habits, and the addition of designer drugs to that mix didn’t seem helpful.

Alas, I had a “pusher” in my life. (Do people even use that word, “pusher,” anymore? It probably wasn’t around even in the early 90s). I had a friend that was really into PC games and he just knew I would be too. He gave me a few “copies” of his games to try out. One of his first attempts at hooking me was “Empire.” Technically, this was “Empire Deluxe” as “Empire” is actually dates back to the late 70s, but this was long before I would understand such distinctions. The game is played on a randomly-generated map with cities that produce units, and then those fight for control of of the cities. It played as both single player and multiplayer and my friend had one or two play-by-email games going on at any given time. I thought it was pretty cool, but it didn’t really grab me.

He then tried to push a new game, that he said was like Empire but more to it. Civilization had much more than just building units. It sounded more enticing than “Empire,” but I also gave it a pass.

Then he got really excited. Civilization was coming out with a sequel, Civilization II, and it was going to be a massive upgrade. He hyped it for weeks and, when it was released to the stores, he finally had it in hand. Shortly thereafter, he handed me a stack of floppy disks. “Just try it,” he said.

And just like that, I was an addict.

I played many many games of Civilization, and have bought most of the sequels (although not yet Civilization V), but it is that first game that is the most memorable. I played on an easy (if not the easiest) setting and had probably only one AI opponent. I spent the entire game expanding in my local area and slowly, slowly advancing my technology. By the time I was approaching the end-year for the game, I decided to circumnavigate the world (which was pretty cool – not sure if I had played a game with a “cylindrical” map before that). In doing so, I discovered the other civilization, and then time ran out and I got a poor score. But there was just something about moving through all those blacked-out squares, unveiling island after island, that gave me a real feeling of discovery.

Civilization didn’t invent the “Fog of War.” That credit may go to Empire. What Civilization brought for the first time to computer gaming was the “tech tree,” an innovation brought over from the Civilization board game upon which Sid’s game was based. By the time I played Civilization II, both of these mechanics were “around”. But it was new to me. The combination of the two – first creating the necessary technology and then discovering what lay in that vast unknown – it really did approximate the “Age of Discovery” for this player.

It must have for many others as well, because this is now the method for unveiling maps and pretty much the standard mechanic for any game set within this period. At least any that I recall playing.

Oh, but what about the title of this post? Years before the events described above, when I was in probably 4th grade or so, a teacher discussed a favorite mnemonic for the year of Columbus’ first voyage. A friend told me that he had an even better mnemonic (he didn’t use that word, I’m sure) with which he would never fail to get the correct answer on his history test. “In the year 1492, Columbus took a poo.” Foolproof.

I never really got it. Does someone sit there thinking, “I know Columbus’ first voyage was in the early 1490s, but what year exactly?” It’s not the “two” that’s the problem. Nevertheless, I remember his rhyme to this day.

In the Year of Our Lord, 1492…

My first attempt to relive that wonder of decades’ past involved getting out my Civilization V. I played the scenario, supplied with the game, called Conquest of the New World. Actually, I played Conquest of the New World Deluxe (both are supplied with the game, each a separate scenario), because if it says Deluxe, it must be better.

The scenario uses a handful of Civilization features to recreate the discovery (and, naturally, conquest) of the New World. These are easily identifiable from past gameplay, but the use gives it a unique period flavor. One examples is that ships at sea now get “scruvy,” taking damage during a long voyage, forcing the player to pause at the various found native colonies, instead of just clearing more “fog” every turn. Another example is that the sight radius of regular ships are reduced while it is increased for Admirals. The “admiral” units are then named for the famous explorers. Thus small expeditions of ships are represented separately from the “fleets” that, one presumes, the standard ship unit implies. Likewise, the “city state” mechanic introduced in Civilization V is used to good effect.

Another twist, and one that I’ve not seen before in games on this subject, is that the real purpose of these westward voyages is remembered. The European players, first, get points for finding the “China” territory on the map and making diplomatic contact. Second, after the suitable technology is researched, more points can be earned by sending merchants to China on trading missions.

An even further twist is that taking a Native American capital produces “treasure” units. Having not read any scenario description, I had to guess that the purpose. I shepherded them back to the Old World, where I received some kind of acknowledgement and, I would hope, some victory points. This particular feature I recall from Sid Meier’s Colonization and also from some of the Age of Empires II campaigns.

Arms Race

I recall my impression from the time of the games that dabbled in this area. At least the ones that I played; Civilization, Europa Universalis, and Age of Empires. Despite being very different in terms of mechanics and even genre, they seemed to me to feed off each other with each new version.

I recall noticing this particularly in the iteration of Civilization where they introduced cultural expansion. Before, territorial ownership was defined simply by where the residents of a Civilization happen to be working. Leave a square unworked, and a competing civilization might just plop a city down right there. The inclusion of cultural borders not only made for more sensible gameplay, but caused Civilization to look a little more EU like.

Meanwhile, the Age of Empires franchise leapt in some new directions with the Rise of Nations series. That game dispensed with the construction of cities building-by-building, as the tradition AoE games had one do. The building of cities (more like Civ) and their zones-of-control (a bit like EU’s provinces) all hinted at an exchange of technique between these “big three.” For the betterment of all of them.

Another example was in the trade and diplomacy mechanics, and how computer civilizations hold or forgive grudges when dealing with the player. If I’m not mistaken, the “bad boy rating” was an EU innovation before permutations on the concept spread.

As for Europa Universalis, the next release after this bit of advancement was EU III, which just did not appeal to me. While I eventually tried both the Hearts of Iron and Victoria sequels based on that engine iteration, I could never bring myself to go EU III. All is redeemed, however, with Europa Universalis IV. The EU franchise was always the pushing their work towards the “realism” end of the spectrum, and EU IV is a huge stride forward in both gameplay and in reproducing real immersion into the historical period.

But before I get too far down that road, let me go back to Civilization and some scenarios.

Deluxe!

The design is that the “Old Country” for each of the European players is a single, fully-developed city. From these cities, the units; whether for exploration, settlements, or conquest; are dispatched to the New World. The New World is randomly generated, a combination of island and larger land mass. It is also randomly located, so there is initially something of a race to locate good colonization spots. China is also randomly located, rewarding the persistent explorer.

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Not quite four decades after the discovery of the New Word and the French and English already have Caribbean colonies.

While not exactly on topic, I felt I’d be a little remiss if I didn’t at least mention Sid Meier’s Colonization and the “total conversion” of Civilization IV to recreate that game. Obviously, it shares many features with the previous game, including the exploration phase “discovering” a randomly-generated “New World.” However, much like Columbus’ expedition itself, the real goal is transporting resources back to Europe and earning wealth.

newspain

While primarily being about the colonization (well, duh), Colonization has some of the same exploration feel as the Civilization V New World scenario.

In the above screenshot, I was discovering what appears to be the main “continent” of Western Hemisphere. As I began to uncover more of the coastline, I noticed a remarkable resemblance to the first ever map of “America” (the first one labeled as such, that is), which is the picture I use for this entry in the timeline.

Enough on Civilization, however. I’ll return to the colony building in a later article, but first

Like Being There

Europa Universalis has, on occasion, done such a good job of tracking the history that it covers that it comes to me as a rude shock when I realize how certain things are simulated. Because no matter how immersive it gets, under the hood, it is a numbers game, not a reality simulator.

That aside, there are a couple of models that really, really bother me with the way they get it wrong. The biggest of them is the handling of ships of the period.

To digress a bit, movement (both land and sea) is done by assigning a travel time for any unit to move between regions. Those units are either in a region, which they can then interact with, or they are in transit between two regions. That transit time can vary per the speed of the unit and the terrain/distance to be traveled.

Compare and contrast to the grid or hex movement, where each space is uniformly size, or to the RTS games, where movement is smooth over a very fine grid. In a number of ways, it simplifies the exploration part of the game. By limiting the options from a large number of possible paths to transit through a much smaller number of regions, it limits micromanagement. Micromanagement is also reduced in that putting a unit in “transit” eliminates the need to manage it in the interim.

In both Civilization and Age of Empires, revealing of the map through exploration could become a chore, particularly as the game progressed. While it is exciting to find your nearest neighbor, or the closest ocean, the tedium of clearing the entire map of “fog” in the later game was not pleasant. This was so much the case that games have added the “auto-explore” option, designating a unit to move around discovering terrain without any user input in perpetuity, or at least until they were eaten by lions.

Which brings up another problem with “exploration” and most games. The exploring unit simply wanders the wilderness exploring, unconnected to the player’s civilization. While in a more abstract game like Civilization, the issue is merely one of balance, this really doesn’t make sense as you try to approximate realism.

EU added some depth to exploration to address these additional problems. First, exploring a hidden region was more costly than transiting a clear region, providing a cost to exploration. Secondly, entering unexplored terrain required a special unit function; “Explorers” for the sea and “Conquistadors” for the land. This required the recruitment and maintenance of dedicated leaders, which in line with the historical theme, corresponded to the explorers of the time. Third, the units suffered “attrition” from traveling the open ocean. (Borrowed for the “scurvy” mechanic discussed above). Damage, pretty much the same as that received in combat, is done to ships on a random basis as they travel. This limits the amount of “exploring” they can do before returning to a home port to “heal.”

This last feature could be a bit sticky. While sailing off into the sunset in 1492 was a bit of a crap shoot (see title), it doesn’t make for fun gameplay when your Christopher Columbus and then your Christopher Columbus Jr. are both sunk by random storms, which then delays the whole “New World” discovery part of your game to the mid-1500s. Even if that were a real possibility facing the real Columbus. The mechanic evolved to make the “attrition” slow enough so that the player can manage it. It also eliminated the sea attrition in home waters and added an “auto return” function in sea units to prevent the loss of fleets merely because the player forgot where they were. It certainly made for a better game of exploration than, say, Civilization, but retained some flaws.

As I said, one of my great complaints about Europa Universalis is the ship modeling. The exploration/attrition interaction is one. Discovering new sea lanes becomes a process of gradually pushing units further out into the unexplored sea until the fleet damage starts to become high. Then you return to port, heal, and repeat. This becomes particularly ahistorical when it comes to circumnavigating the world. I usually end up doing this from both ends, gradually chipping away at the darkness to create a thin line of explored territory through the South Pacific. The circle is finished when explorer 2 meets explorer 1’s path. Silly as it is, apparently Bartholomew Diaz’s discovery of the Horn of Africa looked much like this.

Diaz was headed for India. He sailed south of Africa, actually not knowing he’d done it, and was headed for India when his crew objected and demanded to turn back. It was on the return trip that he mapped the southern limits of the African continent and earned his fame. I imagine this whole journey in the mechanics of EU.

The bigger complaint is with the knowledge that the player (as EU has described, some gray eminence having the ear of the Roi du Jour) regarding ships at sea. Every discovery is known to the player as it is made. Thus if I find a new native nation in the New World, I could instantly dispatch a fleet of warships and soldiers from Europe to visit them. Or if I spot an enemy fleet, I can instantaneously reroute my own fleets from anywhere in the world to catch them. In reality, the only way to convey information from ship to shore was to actually sail that ship back to the port and deliver the map/message.

Another major complaint is the poor modeling of weather and, more particularly, trade winds. I’ll probably write some more later, but let’s just say there was a physical reason why huge Muslim fleets weren’t terrorizing the shores of Ireland, as sometimes happens in these game.

For now, let us stick with the exploration issue, and the latest version of EU.

theyreoff

There go the Nina, the Pin… no wait. It’s the Castor, the San Cristobal (Diaz’s ship?), and the Santa Justa, departing Spain for the New World, right on schedule.

Because the latest version has made some fascinating progress in fixing discovery and exploration. Europa Universalis continually expands with new features and content in the form of add-ons. The add-on El Dorado focused specifically on this period and the discovery of the New World.

The key feature in this release is that explorers, rather than controlling them region-by-region across the map, are now given exploration missions. The area for their exploration is broadly defined, and then the explorer is sent off. While exploring, the explorer cannot be controlled or re-routed. Once they return to the mainland, the map is updated with discoveries and they come once again under control.

found

A little more than a year late, Columbus finally locates land in South America.

This finally resolves one of my great EU issues. You feel much more like a 15th century ruler funding missions of discovery, and less like a modern commander in radio contact with his fleets. Note that the exploration mission substitutes for simply sailing into unknown territory. That is, you can’t micromanage even if you want to. On land, there are similar missions for Conquistadors, but the old method of simply moving them around still works as well.

In my game, in the screenshots above, despite efforts to follow the historical script, I quickly veered off the track, which is what the game is supposed to do. Columbus initially discovered land in Brazil rather than in the Caribbean, and the mechanics of colonization meant that that’s where I had to make my initial Spanish colony. I probably failed to trigger some feature that would allow Spain a colony in the historic location. Then again, if Columbus would have landed in South America, he probably would have build a colony in South America. Also, in my 1508, Isabella I lives on. It means Juana is not queen, and Aragon remains separate. I also managed to accidentally marry her to a prince of Naples, killing off Charles V before he was ever born and preempting the Hapsburg’s rule over most of Europe. You can see in the screenshot, development in the Americas (my colonies are yellowish) is picking up, but it isn’t netting me any coin. Castile remains deeply in debt. I’ve sent an explorer off in search of the Seven Cities of Gold, in hopes that it will turn my fortunes.

newspain

Spain and Portugal (green colonies in Hispaniola) are flipping their historical positions in the Americas. I should’ve married a Hapsburg.

Wish me luck.

Did Ye Make Some Unholy Bond with that Goat?

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Loud music a horror picture doth not maketh.

The 2015 film The Witch: A New-England Folktale is the directorial debut of production and costume designer Robert Eggers. He said it was inspired, at least in part, by his growing up in New England and being surrounded by the stories of witchcraft in colonial times.

The film was billed as horror, which probably does it a disservice. More aptly, it is an exploration of the early stories of witchcraft in the Plymouth Plantation, 62 years before the Salem Witch trials. The production boasts extensive research into the historicity, including costume and sets. As the film explains at the end, much of the dialog is taken from historical records including letters and legal proceedings.

I really don’t like the the substitution of shockingly-loud sound and music for actual frightening storytelling. Once it occurred to me that, perhaps, the film isn’t supposed to be scary, I became a little more generous in its evaluation. I have to say though – some of the music is really, really loud; especially when I’m straining to get the dialog from the accented English.