'Gettysburg: The Tide Turns' Shows How a Map Makes the Game

In genre that's about bringing history to life, this wargame is putting on a clinic.

Jul 17 2017, 3:00pm

courtesy Slitherine

Maps are one of the first ways we engage with history, and remain one of the most powerful. They can be illuminating or deceptive, coldly quantitative or hauntingly evocative (and in the right hands, both at once). But for a certain type of player, few things can stir the imagination like a few figures on the map of another place and time.

Gettysburg: The Tide Turns is a military history atlas come to life. It uses simple colored blocks and figures against age-yellowed parchment backdrop to evoke old Civil War era battle maps. You can almost imagine yourself leaning over a map like this in a field on some long-past summer morning, with the crackle of skirmishing in the distance.

It's also very cleverly animated. As the lines are drawn and units take their place alongside each other or find an enemy at their flank, they rearrange themselves to form the long, flowing patterns that you find in history books. An army in distress starts to bend backward along a flank until what was a straight line has been twisted into a pinched fishhook. Angry arrows flare toward opposing units to show the distribution of firepower. The colored blocks drain into empty outlines as units suffer casualties, and some units will simply crumple into a dusty outline on the battlefield to show where a unit finally broke and ran.

It's a minimalist style that, for the armchair general or casual historian, is as vivid as any of Total War's exacting dioramas. Anyone making a historical game should be looking at The Tide Turns and looking how a radically simple presentation can so instantly connect with the motivations that brought players to the game in the first place.

Does the rest of the game live up to the art style? Not quite. It needs some patching and quality-of-life improvement before it's overall quality matches its charm. The fact that some game menus show a completely different title, calling it Battle Hymn: Gettysburg, does not inspire confidence in the QA process.

The game's randomized order of play makes for a clever and unpredictable system. With every phase of battle, it draws a chit that will activate one division or corps of soldiers. So instead of a "Union" move you'll be able to move all the units in the 5th Corps. Maybe you'll get lucky and the game will keep drawing your chits, so you can arrange everything perfectly without your opponent being able to react. Or maybe you'll only get one move, and then suddenly the Confederates will get their "combat" chit and commence battle instantly, while most of your army is still waiting for orders. It can be frustrating and unpredictable in the way that a good wargame should, capturing the difficulties of command in an era where so much depended on the leadership and judgment of subordinates.

It constantly reminds me of William Morgan Sheppard's classic "give me one brigade and I will take that hill" scene in Gettysburg, where General Isaac Trimble loses his shit with Robert E. Lee because he knows his corps commander probably just screwed up so badly that they're going to get slaughtered.

But the AI will fall into trap after trap, feeding its troops into every meat-grinder it can find. I could live with that if multiplayer support was better, but The Tide Turns only offers a clunky asynchronous multiplayer, and not the peer-to-peer system that a fast-paced game like this deserves. With better multiplayer, this would be an instant must-buy.

Still, for $10 I'm willing to deal with The Tide Turns' limitations for now and keep my fingers crossed for some improvements down the road. Hopefully it gets good support from publisher Slitherine and developer Shenandoah, because you can see a great Civil War series underneath these flaws.