Why 'Sid Meier's Gettysburg' Stopped Making Sense

I am bad at teaching people to play Sid Meier's Gettysburg. Time and again I struggle to explain the tactics the game wants you to use, or how you should approach a scenario. When I was streaming with Ren, she eventually just tossed up her hands and explained that the fundamental concepts of the game were opaque to her, and it finally dawned on me that Gettysburg assumes that you already know all this stuff. Whatever side you play in a scenario, you are being invited to inhabit a character in an American passion play, approaching it with an understanding of what each moment represents in a story whose lines you know by heart.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/5dgvqk/waypoint-101-sid-meiers-gettysburg-essay-civil-war-nostalgia
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As someone who was a huge history nerd as a teenager, Rob really homes in on the fraught nature of war gaming nostalgia, especially around the 90s and early 2000s. I too had the Gettysburg and Antietam discs next to my family’s computer, and I spent many a late night trying to finagle my way to changing history, even then knowing full well what horror that changed history would entail. Similarly, my friends would jockey to play Japan or Germany in Axis and Allies, because it was a far more interesting and challenging premise to take the disadvantaged fascist powers to world dominance. This was a fairly diverse group, but when history was just dry textbooks and flashy video games and movies, the stakes to actual, oppressed people never entered our consideration. As we grew older and learned more of the human cost of war and prejudice, that nostalgia has curdled somewhat. But I can’t completely shake the appeal of reading a historical battlefield and making the just right maneuver that would allow Rommel or Lee to achieve victory.

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Some great stuff here from Rob, this sentence encapsulates my own discomfort with a lot of wargaming:

Sid Meier’s Gettysburg is a charming sandbox toy crafted at time when the history itself could seem like a hobbyist playground built atop old battlefields.

Most of my experience is with tabletop stuff, but there’s a similar vibe. Even though I still think a lot of those games are valuable, because they can be thought provoking models and good entry points to learning more, often I can’t shake this gross feeling of dabbling in something steeped in so much suffering. The hobby is becoming more diverse in its designers and players, but still the typical community (on BGG, etc) often doesn’t help this gross feeling.

I’m biased because I personally find tactical-level war games a lot less interesting than operational and strategic level games, but I have to admit after watching the streams I still don’t really know why Rob picked this game. Although it certainly made for good content, it did seem like they never really got a good handle on the game.

That being said I did really enjoy the interview with Greg Foertsch, and I’m looking forward to listening to the 101 episode.

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How absolutely perfectly put. The use of Historic or Contemporary conflict in entertainment contexts often appears callous to that reality. I don’t think the parts of SMG that I saw address that at all.

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I’ll get around to reading this once I finish the podcast 101 and I’m sure it’s wonderful. But did I miss Ren’s piece on Heaven Will Be Mine?

Rob’s depiction of 90s and early 2000s school history textbooks is absolutely correct. I was in school in NJ, certainly no place with any need to eulogize the South, and still, Robert E. Lee was treated as a noble antagonist, Reconstruction was considered a vast overreach by “Radicals”, and clearly the people writing the story were more interested in the various tactical movements versus greater moral or political statements.

I actually started to really piss off my teachers in high school who were utterly taken with the genius of the Founding Fathers and when I started clapping back and pointing out, “wait a second, the US South and slave economy is a villain and might have poisoned our country forever, there are critical, maybe even fatal flaws in our system of governance made to accommodate these people and it has never been fixed.” And well, I might as well have had a damn crystal ball since all my most dire predictions have come true.

It’s only when I’m older that I also can see how much those history textbooks not only made the South the glorious opponent, but also the source of all our sins. You don’t hear how much the North was built on the backs of slavery, you don’t hear how NJ still had a (dying but still extant) form of slavery into the Civil War itself, you don’t hear how much White Supremacy was not some accident regrettable turn we took and since righted on the glorious march of Whig-like progress, but a key value of this nation and one which both sides of the Civil War 100% believed in, and which still holds firm as a bedrock of this country to this very day.

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In 1997 these choices were all major strengths that made Gettysburg unusually approachable to people immersed in war and tactics games, bolstering the way its interface made the careful formation-keeping of Civil War-era armies immediately intuitive and visually parsable. “What am I supposed to do here?” was a question players might have intuitive answers for based on all these famous encounters and what-ifs. How you were supposed to put those ideas into practice was via a set of rules that again played on common understandings of Civil War combat.

As a non-American hearing Rob lay out the surge and decline of Civil War mania through the 90s is very interesting. This is a neat take on how what seems to me a very niche interest can gain mainstream success by hitting at the right time. And what better era for this to happen in than the 90s, when the “rules” of good game ™ design were unknown*? Building games around the implicit assumption that the player has a solid understanding of the material (or is willing to dig into the 175 page long manual describing it) is honestly pretty cool, like hitting the player with a required reading list on first boot**.

But there is of course a limit to how many people will be attracted to that. It will be fun to listen to the full WP101 discussion.

* Okay, this is selling the success of games like Crusader Kings short

** Another game that could have used this: The Last Express

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This was a fascinating 101. Definitely among the top content this site has put out. The reveal midway through the pod that it’s literally been one man, Rob Zacny himself, who has been carrying the torch for Gettysburg! on the internet for the past dozen years is * chef’s kiss *.

Here’s the NYT article that Ren has been referencing. It’s a great time capsule. As a scientist, I think Ren is totally on the money. There’s a saying in science that “all models are wrong”, which I think is in the spirit of the discussion. All models contain assumptions that degrade its validity to varying degrees. You need to balance explanatory power against overfitting, complexity against parsimony. And the assumptions you make are a reflection of the designer; there’s no such thing as an “unbiased” assumption. You need to have care to understand and explain the limits of your model, whether that’s in history or in science.

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After listening to the 101 episode, I’ve come around on this. I didn’t appreciate that the crew was able to bring such a sharp critical lens to bear on the game in part I think because how much the Civil War looms so large in American culture. And so they were able to draw on their experience in the American education system, and the impact the Lost Cause myth has had, etc. If Rob had picked a different wargame, maybe focusing on a different conflict, that might have been less true. Anyway I think some of the discussions they had around asymmetry and specificity in scenario design did get at the heart of something essential about historical wargaming, so maybe Gettysburg was actually a great choice for a wargame 101.

I would be fascinated to see Rob and Ren dig deep into something like Mark Herman’s For the People (strategic level board game covering the whole Civil War) or Volko Ruhnke’s Labyrinth (another strategic level board game, covering the War on Terror with some arguably fucked politics). For all the fiddlyness that tabletop war gaming deservedly has a reputation for, one of the big benefits is that the entire model is exposed and on display. Because the rules are right there, and you must grapple with them intimately in order to even play the game, I think you can more quickly get at a place where you’re able to critique it, compared to replaying a computer game over and over.

Also, just want to shout out Ren’s contributions on the 101 discussion! She has been a great addition to the streams and pods so far, but I feel like this discussion was one that really benefited from her input and helping to steer things.

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For me their discussion around this was an absolute highlight, coming from someone who isn’t too experienced with historical wargames. Units looking similar at a glance but representing vastly different strengths in terms of experience and combat prowess is fascinating on its own*. It coming from the actual history of how regiments and brigades were formed and treated by the two sides adds so much to that. I’m sure this is common in more involved computer and tabletop wargames but I love to see it here as a route that popular real time games could have taken.

Glad they touched on level design, too. One reason I grew tired with the Total War games is how maps are so indistinct and rarely represent interesting tactical opportunities. Judging from their comments about Warhammer it doesn’t seem to have improved much since. Gettysburg being in the realm of actual events gives them a lot to base actual strategy on.

I was very young at its release and only have vague memories of playing the demo (of course from the PC Gamer disc they mentioned) and so while I knew it was deemed a fine game it passed me by. Besides showing that there is still a cool game here, this 101 to me reinforced the notion that there’s always more than one way to tell good stories in games. Hooking onto a point that Ren made, the past isn’t a straight evolution from bad to good games. There is often so much to appreciate about the past struggle of translating ideas into gameplay. I really enjoyed this 101, standout work from the team.

* Closest I’ve come to this is Ground Control, where units gain experience through the campaign as long as they survive the mission. By the end of that campaign I knew I could trust certain teams to hold ground where I put them.

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