It’s hard to picture what 24 year old Calvin A. Haynes might have imagined when he left his home in what is now East Nassau New York to enlist in the Union Army during the summer of 1862. After all, he had a wife, a daughter, a home, and presumably the comforts of friends and family that you tend to gather over a life spent in one area. What is certain though is that almost a year later, Haynes would describe the aftermath of the battle of Gettysburg to his wife by simply saying, “I went over the field; such a sight I wish never to see again. Every conceivable wound that can be thought of was there…It is beyond the power of man to describe a battle field.”
Wargaming can be an almost clinical look at the tragic suffering of the men and women who fought or were swept up in the battles about which our games simulate. After all, it wasn’t long after Andean Abyss, the first COIN series title, that I was on an interview team for a Colombian who had fled his homeland because of escalating violence and threats by the FARC against his family. Surely, the citizens who witnessed the historical events laid out in the games that make up our hobby bear both physical and mental scars that they will struggle with throughout their lives. For, the citizens of Gettysburg, their homes were turned en masse into hospitals and scenes of the agony of war.
In a hobby crowded with games about Gettysburg, how does Battle Hymn stand out from the crowd? Simply put, it pairs the game with Pea Ridge, considered the “Gettysburg of the West,” and represents combat in as the visceral slaughter it was during this early-industrial revolution era combat. Designer Eric Lee Smith has managed to create a system in Battle Hymn that both a) redefines how players need to consider the effectiveness of their fighting forces and b) could be one of the best American Civil War combat systems ever devised.
I will provide a few disclaimers here, as I do with most of my reviews. I only played the Gettysburg battle and therefore I can only speak about how it worked, but the system itself is the same in both battles. I am not an American Civil War expert on par with many of you and so you’ll need to draw your own conclusions about the information presented herein. Finally, I only mention component quality if it stands out in some way either good or bad. In this case, I’ll get it out of the way and say that I love the maps for both scenarios as they are spectacular in capturing the look and feel of maps from this era. Beyond that, the components are solid and meet the needs of the game.
In the last ten years (since 2008) there have been 29 Gettysburg games released. Some deal with a specific aspect of the battle like the recently released Longstreet Attacks: The Second Day at Gettysburg, while others are surveys of the whole battle in varying levels of detail ranging from postcard-sized games, those which have received the Rachel Simmons treatment (Guns of Gettysburg), and even the grand tactical level of a monster like The Gamers’ Last Chance for Victory. In each game, the battle remains the same, the order of the battle is there, and the terrain follows the same broad strokes. The phases of Gettysburg are unmistakable.
Unions cavalry encounters a steadily growing and overwhelming force of Confederate troops. Just as the cavalry is about to break, the I Corps of the Union Army shows up and stalls the initial Confederate push. As the first day wears on, the Union is forced back through town and on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge. More Confederates arrive and the whole battle seems like it’s going to go the Confederates who are now probing the flanks of the Union army. Miraculously, and overnight, the Union Army gets into place and the bloodiest fighting is found on the 2nd day as the Union reserves plug holes in the fish-hook shaped line they’ve established. When possible, the Union army is able to extend their lines and eventually, the Confederates attempt one last gasp offensive push to break through the Union lines. From there, it’s cleanup.
We’re familiar with this often repeated process and regardless of the scale presented, if you’re maneuvering units in and around Gettysburg the battle is a close fought thing the whole time. It is why I’m so attracted to the topic as a historical wargame! The problem is that each Gettysburg game is somewhat of a “been there done that” experience without something truly fresh and new. The Line of Battle treatment of Gettysburg in Last Chance for Victory provided the best grand tactical look at the game since GMT’s evolutionary release of the original Terrible Swift Sword in their 3rd Edition of Three Days at Gettysburg. That said, the attraction was in the details and calculating the primary weaponry of each side as a part of the combat resolution. For folks who wanted to get into the nuts and bolts (or the bolts and stocks as it were) of Gettysburg could do so in Last Chance for Victory. Guns of Gettysburg stands out as another experience that focused almost exclusively on the variability of the reinforcements and how/where they would enter the battlefield. It was an exciting and fresh take, but one that had dense rules that were difficult to parse and though noteworthy failed to find a rabid broad fanbase.
Eric Lee Smith’s own Across 5 Aprils from Victory Games marches these same fields back in 1992. Since then, Mr. Smith has had plenty of time to hone his understanding of what made that game great and what could be improved upon for Battle Hymn. The counter layout is similar and there are definite links to the prior game in Smith’s Battle Hymn, but the place where I think this game distinguishes itself is by bringing home the visceral nature of combat results in the American Civil War.
It is important to note that units take both manpower and morale damage in this game which combine to make units ineffective first and eliminated second. In game terms, units become shattered where all remaining manpower factors have been demoralized. Units are eliminated when they no longer have manpower factors left. That said combat doesn’t wear down the manpower factors as quickly as it wears down the morale of the units which represents a sort of unit morale and cohesion here. With that background, we can look a little closer at what this means in broad strokes first and then in more detail second.
From the player’s overall perspective this style of combat means that you are thinking about waves of units that must be staged in order to gain ground. Blood will pay for every hex once you make contact and before that with bombardment which steady wears down the morale of the advancing units from as far as 3 hexes away. As a result, the timing of combat is essential.
Battle Hymn relies on a chit pull unit activation system that works perfectly for both opposed and solitaire play. Turns are tense and having the initiative means your side gets to determine when they hold their combat turn rather than through random draw. This is critically important because there are times when you’re crossing your fingers to draw just one more brigade from your side so you can pull off a decisive multi-hex combat only to get your hopes dashed when your opponent pulls their combat chit from the cup. The whole game is dramatic in that way, even from the first turn which most folks can attest (aside from the Avalon Hill Gettysburg ’88 edition) is usually a snooze-fest of first steps onto the battlefield.
Much is abstracted in this game which means both quicker play and that the fluid turn structure keeps both players involved at all times. In some wargames, your opponent could be reading a book, sending some e-mails, or browsing Reddit while you take your turn. Though those games can be rich and full of fun, the downtime is kind of a bummer and is especially so when you’re trying to introduce the game to someone who might not be familiar with wargaming! Battle Hymn is a great way to introduce an American Civil War history buff to tabletop wargaming. They’ll be able to apply their knowledge, see expected outcomes and experience the wrath of poor die rolls and the ecstasy of pulling off a great maneuver and rolling well.
As each player plans their movements, they’re thinking after the first few turns about the fact that it’s pretty common to see your units suffer at least one demoralization increase and potentially even one strength point reduction. This means that each unit is a bit like a timer on the battlefield and you have to read the tea leaves for how long you think they can remain an effective fighting unit. They don’t rally during the day and days are at least 9 turns long with the first day at 11 one-hour turns. The math is as much about fighting effectiveness as it is about firepower.
While I generally don’t like to get into the details of game mechanics, I think since combat is the centerpiece of this review that I should at least give it a high-level overview.
When units move in this game, they are given an approach marker which effectively makes them more difficult to hit but does provide the defender facing them an opportunity to make a preemptive fire combat attempt. In many cases, both units involved in combat will have an approach marker on them. While it’s rare for this to cause massive damage, the initial phases of combat (Bombardment and Approach Fire) are intended to set up the overall effectiveness of the meat of the combat phase. Canons roar first and can only inflict demoralization increases, which in some cases for units defending on the edge can be the difference-maker. In one case, I had a Union I Corps unit defending on Culp’s hill following the retreat through Gettysburg and 6 combat factors of artillery blasted away from two hexes out at the unit. That was 6 die rolls and 2 of them resulted in hits by rolling 1’s. My poor morale checks sent my Union unit to the Shattered box.
Once the opening shots are traded, units make their actual combat checks with the defender’s terrain setting the to-hit number which is subsequently modified by hexside effects and unit types. For example, infantry firing on cavalry or artillery provide different modifiers. After that, all un-demoralized and remaining strength points roll a single d10. Anything equal to or less than the to-hit number lands a hit and the unit is marked with a hit marker to track those hits. In multi-hex combat, the firing unit must split it’s available strength points between the enemy units adjacent to it. This means that those long lines of Confederate and Union forces slamming into one another creates a chaotic rolling line of combat split only by gaps in the line. As such, that combat chit I mentioned before is often the difference maker in who has their forces in place to receive or launch an attack properly. Once hits have been allocated to both sides, the defender (side who didn’t play their combat turn chit) resolves their morale checks first which are modified by their unit’s inherent morale. This number also, equally, modifies the combat roll which is sometimes a negative thing for that unit.
The first failed morale check for fire combat is a loss of a strength point. Subsequent failures increase the demoralization level. As such, tending to the demoralization of units is absolutely key and retreats/retreat planning become essential. It’s possible for retreating units to cause a morale check in units behind the lines simply by being forced to rout through that unit’s hex. This can create a cascade of panic behind the lines if poorly planned.
As a result, when the first night finally arrives, the Union and to a lesser degree the Confederates, must attend to the specific units they need to see combat effective in the coming day. Players are faced with tough choices, do I want the unit who will be great in combat, but perhaps weaker at morale checks or do I want the units who can more easily avoid morale check failures but are weaker in combat? My experience is that a blend of these unit types are necessary to make the most of the forces at your disposal. It gives a great perspective on the battle because casualty management and the morale state of your army are at the forefront of your command decisions at all times. As a result, this is one of the best American Civil War games ever released in my opinion.
Smith’s work here is extraordinary. Though I struggled with the rules at first and am still not 100% certain I have everything figured out exactly, I can solidly say that Smith’s approach to combat and how he chose to create some ambiguity in terms of combat effectiveness is a smooth experience that allows you to play the game rather than fight the rules. The more experienced I get with wargaming the more I appreciate the hobby for its two, sometimes opposed, sides. The side the revels in the glory of minutia. That feeling when you’ve built a great strike force, deployed them well, and outfoxed your opponent based on the tiny details of the rules. You feel like the commander who had to deal with all the variables of combat and you’ve distinguished yourself! The other side of the hobby which is about the enjoyment of the history, fellowship, and measure player strategic thinking against one another in a fast-paced, almost chess-like environment. This game solidly meets the latter’s needs fully, but doesn’t totally ignore the person who wants to dig into the little details because of how the night turns are structured.
During the night turns, units have the option to rally rather than move since rallying consumes the unit’s entire movement. For units on the map, they need to be out of line of sight of an enemy and for units previously shattered this is their opportunity to return to play. That said, Smith made such a great design decision here by both not allowing a unit to ever fully recover since in the context of the compressed timeline that would have been unlikely and to tie how many SPs could return to a non-demoralized state to the unit’s morale. For those keeping score at home, that’s combat resolution, morale checks, and SPs that can rally all tied to the one morale factor on the counter.
Strong design means tackling an aspect of the topic with a clear vision and well-considered rules that get rid of anything that doesn’t pursue the central truth of the designer’s vision. Smith has done this here in his unrelenting presentation of American Civil War combat as a savage, bloody, and horrific event that spares no one and gets at the events Calvin Hayes saw upon that Pennsylvania battlefield nearly 155 years ago. Many American Civil War games have been released and many of those cover Gettysburg, but few leave a lasting impression about the carnage of warfare in the way Battle Hymn does. This is wargaming at its finest. It presents the players with the historical context, a fine game, and critically a lesson about the topic that lasts well beyond the time when the counters have been returned to their trays. Smith and Compass Games have a phenomenal start to a new wargame series on their hands and I cannot recommend this game highly enough.