How We Spent the Last Month Examining ‘Sid Meier’s Gettysburg’

As part of our latest Waypoint 101 project, the entire crew dove into his overlooked Sid Meier game with streams, podcasts, and essays.
A screen shot from the video game Gettysburg
Image courtesy of Firaxis

Our latest Waypoint 101, where we collectively play and examine an older game through the lens of the present, was Sid Meier’s Gettysburg! Over the past month and change, we’ve been streaming the game, writing about the game, and ultimately podding about the game. 

The year is 1997. On the cover of Computer Gaming World issue 162—the January 1998 issue—is a hands-on preview of Falcon 4.0, the latest high-end flight sim. On the very next page of the magazine, however, is an advertisement for Total Annihilation, the real-time strategy game best remembered for having too many units and extremely cool terrain. A few pages later is another ad, this time for Starcraft—a game that would change everything, but hadn’t yet been released.

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At the time, the RTS genre in PC gaming was at a fever pitch, thanks to the collective success of the Command & Conquer and Warcraft games. Moving tanks was as popular as shooting demons, and in the midst of all of this, Sid Meier’s new studio, Firaxis, was releasing their first game: Gettysburg! (Yes, the exclamation is on purpose. Meier dropped a big ! into the name of only a few games—Gettysburg!, Antietam!, Railroads! and Pirates!)

Sid Meier’s name is known to many, even those largely unfamiliar with war and strategy games, but even among those kinds of people, Gettysburg is not a game that comes up very often. Finding articles written about it requires digging through the Wayback Machine, and even on places like YouTube, where you’re supposed to be able to find videos about anything, you really don’t find much about this revolutionary (but forgotten) strategy game.

As Rob put it in his essay, “Why ‘Sid Meier’s Gettysburg’ Stopped Making Sense”, it’s a game with a complex legacy in the modern era:

“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?”

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Rob’s essay formed the backbone of our Waypoint 101 podcast discussion, which I’ve included an excerpt of below. It’s the first 10 minutes from our much longer (two hours! 30 minutes! some seconds!) discussion, which is available in full to Waypoint+ subscribers

If you’re not a Waypoint+ subscriber, you can still catch up on all of our streams right now, too.

Up next, we’re tackling 2002’s The Thing, and beyond playing the overlooked survival horror game, we’ll also be watching John Carpenter’s The Thing—both Ren and Cado have never seen it before—along with some more…experimental (??) programming. We’re excited for it. Stay tuned.


Waypoint 101s are enabled by Waypoint Plus, where our audience subscribes for access to a premium podcast feed with special episodes like our Waypoint 101 discussion of Sid Meier's Gettysburg. Those subscriptions also support all of our streams and the time we take to examine games and subjects outside the current mainstream discourse. Learn more at waypointplus.com