In a previous article I discussed the majority of strategy games pertaining to the American Civil War were of the strategy genre and little else.
Perhaps the most famous strategy game was 1997’s Sid Meier’s Gettysburg! in which you controlled Union or Confederate forces, generally at the regimental level, and attempted to outmaneuver (and out-kill) the A.I. in order to secure enough “victory points” to win. It's a fair bet to say that all future RTS games based around a single battle were made in its shadow.
Ultimate General: Gettysburg, developed by Game Labs, acknowledges Sid Meier’s influence in their very first developer diary, and you can easily see this through the course of the game. All of this is for the best. Taking this in addition to what he learned from his years in the Total War modding scene, lead developer Nick Thomadis has crafted the best Civil War RTS since Sid Meier’s game.
While the real battle of Gettysburg took place over three real-life days, Ultimate General: Gettysburg does not take that long. It instead divides the battle up into sectors depending on the current forces available and the time of day. Very rarely, if ever, will you have access to the entire map – you instead need to focus on the current area being contested.
An example of this can be seen in the first day of fighting, which, depending on exactly how well or poorly you are playing, takes place on ridges north and west of Gettysburg proper. As you can see in the screenshot, the town is at the southeastern edge of the map. However, as the battle progresses and the fighting shifts to the fields south of the town, Gettysburg will appear on the northern edge of the map, if it shows up at all. This allows you to concentrate more critical areas, though it prevents you from forcing a widespread, all-out assault on the enemy’s entire position.
As in Sid Meier’s Gettysburg!, the game calculates how well you are doing by comparing key factors like casualties and “victory points” – key battlefield areas with historical and/or tactical importance. But neither one of those stats are more important; if you take Cemetery Hill, for example, but lose thousands upon thousands of troops doing so, you are still in a bad situation.
History nerds like me will get really excited for the end of every battle segment. Depending on how well you do, the next scenario has an option to branch off from established history, permanently altering the battle. This allows for the possibility to drive the Confederates off the field earlier than in reality, or send the Union reeling after the first day by taking Cemetery Hill. The game also offers yet-to-be-implemented July 4th options – historically the battle ended on July 3rd – which I’m positively salivating over in anticipation.
What it does well
Ultimate General: Gettysburg’s tight focus on Gettysburg and nothing else allows the developers to really perfect the mechanics and AI behavior of the battle.
Improving the various Total War A.I.s was Thomadis’ selling point in his DarthMod days, and he clearly applied his lessons learned into Ultimate General: Gettysburg. The result is nine, mostly distinct A.I. “personalities” that range on a 3x3 scale which determine both difficulty and aggressiveness. For example, “Determined” and “Risky” are both considered more offense-based personalities, but a Risky A.I. is more likely to engage in a costly frontal assault on a fortified defensive position while a Determined A.I. will apply pressure elsewhere to get you to shift your reserves away, and then attack the point it really cares about in force. Occasional situations arise where a defensive-minded A.I. needs to take an objective in order to have any chance of winning and fails due to its personality, but for the most part you face a fairly formidable foe.
The 2D battlefield is very nicely detailed and historically accurate, and terrain effects, while they could use some improvement in mechanics, matter. For example, my infantry definitely had better firing range if they were on the high ground.
Cover likewise matters; your unit remains generally protected from artillery fire while in a wooded area, but sometimes you need your troops out in the open to have an effect. A couple of key hills on the battlefield look like ideal places to put your artillery on, but good luck getting them to fire more than once every five minutes if they don’t have line of sight.
Lastly, in terms of moving the units themselves, Ultimate General: Gettysburg offers an interesting new way to do so by simply clicking and dragging, which allows you to plot the exact path a unit takes. For someone like me who grew up on games with shaky path finding at best, this has been a godsend. It especially shines when you try to flank enemy lines, as now you can do so in one fell swoop as opposed to having to first move the unit into position and then have to turn it manually. Game Labs is ultimately looking to bring Ultimate General: Gettysburg to the tablet, so it’s not surprising that they are looking for an interface that translates well to touchscreens. They seem to have found it.
What could be better:
I mentioned in the above section that its tight focus on Gettysburg is one of the game’s greatest strengths, and I’m glad that Game Labs is so heavily concentrating on the core mechanics as opposed to any bells and whistles. That said, this depth comes at the cost of certain aspects of realism. Despite the game’s historical accuracy with unit placements and makeup of the battlefield, the hardcore historian/wargamer can still find complain-worthy details.
A quick note that my following complaints about realism need to be distinguished from my earlier praise of the ahistorical scenarios available – the scenarios detail things that are possible had certain tactical decisions been made during the battle, while I am now concerned with battlefield mechanics that I feel go unaddressed.
First of all, logistics such as ammunition are not present at all. This may save time and give the players one less factor to keep track of, but historically logistics did come into play during the battle of Gettysburg – a Confederate artillery barrage on Day 3 lost effectiveness due to ammunition scarcity, which contributed to the failure of Pickett’s Charge.
Secondly, the battle segments generally take no more than 20-30 minutes to play each, with an option to extend the segment if a victory point is in doubt, which you have no control over. This can sometimes get out of hand. A game where I launched an evening assault to retake Big Round Top as the Union ended up getting decided at 4:00 AM the following day. Fighting this late basically never happened in war and I wasn’t sure of its necessity seeing as I had secured the hill long prior to when the segment finally ended. A bit more control, or at least understanding of the game’s timing system would be greatly appreciated.
Finally, while high-ranking individual generals are featured as a kind of mobile morale-booster, there is no mechanic for them getting injured or dying. Historically, one of the Union commanders, John F. Reynolds, died on the first day of battle, which contributed to his forces nearly getting overrun for a time.
My above quibbles are minor compared to the number of solid mechanics that this game brings to the table. Ultimate General: Gettysburg can appeal to both the casual gamer as well as the hardcore tactician. Thomadis has learned well from his days as a modder and emphasized the things that make for a good, replayable wargame: A.I. behavior, a balanced battle speed, and a multitude of scenarios. The result is a game that is a more-than-worthy entry into the rich canon of Civil War strategy games.
Ultimate Battle: Gettysburg by Game Labs is currently in early access with 70% of the work complete as of June. It will be released on PC and eventually the tablet.
Zach Yost is an educator in the Washington, DC area who teaches high school students from a wide variety of backgrounds. He keeps telling himself all of his strategy gaming experience will be good practice for when he finally gets on “Survivor.”