Why 'Sid Meier's Gettysburg' Stopped Making Sense

It's a masterpiece of intuitive and elegant design based on a popular history that stopped being so popular, and no longer feels so important.
Union soldiers advance in a render of a Don Troiani painting for the splash art of Sid Meir's Gettysburg.
credit: Firaxis

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.


That was a safe bet when it came to designing a game in 1997, which might have been near the peak of the Civil War's recent presence in popular culture. The 1990 Ken Burns documentary had ignited a wave of interest that would only really begin to wane as World War II / Greatest Generation nostalgia eclipsed it. But in the early 1990s, the odds of catching a random Civil War documentary on TV were high, and if you walked into a major bookstore you'd eventually be greeted by a table laid-out with Civil War histories and coffee table books. Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels received a reappraisal and captured the imagination of a very different public than the one that scorned it when it was published in the 1970s, and it was adapted to film with 1993's four-hour epic Gettysburg, a film which also captures the pinnacle of Civil War reenactment culture while the preponderance of gray hair in the ranks hints at the hobby's coming decline. 

When the producers attempted to recapture the magic a decade later with the cloying Lost Cause sentimentality of Gods and Generals, it backfired horribly and put a late period on 1990s Civil War nostalgia. In some ways its ham-handed attempt to both morally exculpate and restore to their professional pedestals Lee and his lieutenants anticipated the way that Civil War history, for so long a safe culture war victory for white supremacy, would be thoroughly reconsidered and tied much more directly to Reconstruction and Jim Crow in the popular imagination.

Atop a carpet of bright green grass strewn with the sprites of dead blue and brown-uniformed soldiers, a line labelled 12 Illinois Vavalry shoots at a line of confederates in a stand of pixelated trees.

But Sid Meier's Gettysburg is about a shared, popular understanding of Gettysburg as not just a pivotal battle of the Civil War but one whose course and outcome was so contingent on famous accident and infamous miscalculation as to invite unlimited speculation. The scenarios themselves are unveiled with briefings that are more memetic than informative: poor Harry Heth's march for shoes, Buford's long wait for Reynolds, Longstreet's plea for a flanking maneuver, Sickels' advance into the wheat field, the Union's stand among the rocks of Devil's Den and Little Round Top, Lee's desperate conviction and Pickett's doomed charge at Cemetary Ridge.

Gettysburg doesn't introduce players to these moments, it instead embraces the foreknowledge that players are expected to bring into each scenario. The hapless Confederate commander Harry Heth doesn't know that behind the Union cavalry he means to sweep aside are some of the best units in the Union army, but we are supposed to. We sense the danger he didn't, we feel the urgency he lacked because we know how this part of the story went. Likewise, when the luckless Union XI Corps takes a position far north of Gettysburg to continue holding back the Confederate tide, we know that this overextension would prove to be the Union's undoing and come within a hair's breadth of turning Gettysburg into yet another of those battles where inept Union generalship allowed the Confederates to seize crushing victory from the jaws of defeat. If you play the Union side, you already know you're badly out of position and have only moments to get out a trap; as the Confederate commander, you have to use your surprise flank attack to utterly demolish the Union forces before they can re-establish a defensive line.


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.

A rendered, gloved hand points at a large, abstract map of Gettysburg as part of a briefing cutscene.

Civil War history is not just remembered for its great captains but for the mundane geography that was elevated to immortality. The war took place all over American farmland, but The Cornfield is forever and always a blood-soaked stand of crops at Antietam. The Round Top hills at Gettysburg are not really remarkable places but the hellaciously determined defense Union troops made of them, the numbers they were able to defy thanks to the hills' awkwardly rocky, steep slopes turned them into a scene of heroics. 

If you tried to explain the course of one Civil War battle versus another, why the same troops achieve massive success on one battlefield and give themselves over to rout and panic on another, the answer often comes down to the ground. Sid Meier's Gettysburg makes the connection literal by turning difficult ground into a bonus to the morale of soldiers defending it, or a penalty for soldiers trying to assault it. It's probably an oversimplification but it's a perfectly valid model for Civil War combat and, more importantly, it's one that works exactly how many of the people coming to the game expect it to.


However, Gettysburg is much less successful when it is speaking to players for whom Civil War combat is itself mostly an abstraction, and so the perfect clarity of its model and the shorthand it uses for scenario design, seems arbitrary rather than intuitive. The assumptions it makes, and the variables it largely discards, become opaque. Gettysburg doesn't care what specific rifled muskets or carbines troops took into battle with them, all the troops are basically the same… except for the fact that some troops are hardened veterans and some are rank amateurs. They look the same and behave completely differently. You'd know that if you knew what the Iron Brigade was, but what if you don't?

A highly-zoomed out map of a Civil War battle that renders the individual models and regiments as nothing but blue and red dots on a pixelated map, showing a Union envelopment around an objective labelled The Peach Orchard.

That even Gettysburg eventually runs into this problem illustrates some of the recurring traps that wargames have to contend with. This is just about the most famous battle in American history, and a game like Gettysburg desperately needs its subject to be famous and widely-understood to make its design intuitive and inviting. Even battles of similar magnitude don't have anywhere near the same broad familiarity, and so we see why designers have to keep coming back to the same well-trod ground over and over, not just to find a market but to find a place where the audience can easily grasp a design and where they are situated in relation to it.

Of course, that also means coming into contact with why some battles exert a special hold on the imagination. Gettysburg presents a fascinating set of scenarios and problems but that is not why it is a subject of fascination. The best passage ever written on that subject is of course Faulkner's:


For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.

From behind the Union lines, the camera takes in waves of Confederate and Union troops crashing together east of the Peach Orchard.

So many of the dry hypotheticals around Gettysburg are themselves the unanswered prayers of the Lost Cause. If Ewell had attacked more aggressively on that first day, would the Union cause have been the one to be lost on the third? If Longstreet had been allowed to re-deploy, if the Round Tops had fallen to the Confederates, would the inevitable still have occurred?


It was more fun and felt safer to contemplate these questions in the complacent 1990s, when so many festering wounds were ignored as settled issues. The Union cause was righteous, yes, but couldn't we also agree that Robert E. Lee was a fine American? The liberation of the slaves and their conquest of their former masters was glorious, but wasn't the valor and dedication of the Confederate soldier something worthy of its own monuments? After all, the argument so often went, the average rebel foot soldier didn't even own a slave and therefore how could you say they were fighting for slavery rather than the rights of their beloved states?

The too-late realization that the spirit of Nathan Bedford Forrest was as alive and well in the 2000s as it had been in the 1960s as it had been in the 1920s, that the dreams of a plantation aristocracy were unbanished and the ideology of racial supremacy was being actively cultivated and re-articulated for a new age, once again collapsed the distance between the present and the Civil War. 

That's not to say that interest in the subject has collapsed, but it is profoundly changed with context. 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. If you view the causes and results of the Civil War as settled, distant issues, then how they were settled on its battlefields is the story of the Civil War, and Gettysburg sits at its center. But if you see the Civil War as an early stage in a much longer struggle to determine whether the United States can overcome its foundational white supremacy to become a true democracy, then the details of all those battles and their various maneuvers are a much less important part of that story. 

Sid Meier's Gettysburg remains a great wargame, but it has become a less resonant one because it is a loving and clever re-creation of a story that is neither as widely told nor as important as it used to be. If Gettysburg marks the moment that the Confederacy's forces began to be driven from the field, the stories of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the end of the Civil Rights era all explain how they returned, and it is probably a sign of both progress and deepening civic crisis that these are increasingly the stories people find worth reexamining, and not the verdict of a single July afternoon in 1863.

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Next up, by the way, we're doing All Things The Thing. We have lots of exciting things planned around the Carpenter movie, the game adaptation that Patrick suggested as his 101, and some other, less well-known stuff.