An Interview with Gettysburg Game Designer Doug Strickler:
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Doug Strickler, the game designer for HPS' Campaign Gettysburg, graciously took the time to answer the following questions concerning his game and the effort needed to finish it. Doug's Campaign Gettysburg contains massive, massive maps. And his campaign contains literally thousands of scenarios. This is a monster game any way you look at it and the play value is enormous. You could literally play this game for years and not run across the same set of scenarios in a campaign twice. Doug's comments on his maps and his ideas on exact regimental strengths are especially interesting. This was the second game I've helped playtest for HPS, and I also came in pretty late in the process for this one. I was very happy with the way this turned out, and from Doug's comments, both in this interview and in private to me, I know he thinks so too. The massive amount of time and effort that went into this game is evident while playing. Enjoy!
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I'm 54, a public defender, married, no kids.
How and when did you get into wargaming? Who were some big influences in your life that led you into the hobby?
I started gaming in the 3rd/4th grade. Tactics II. Followed by anything Avalon Hill put out. I've always been interested in history. My dad was career Air Force, so I had a touch of military background at an early age. I've always been interested in things military, and gaming just ties right in I guess.
Why did you decide to do Gettysburg as your first game? Is it your personal favorite?
I had done a series of mods for BGG. Circulated them via the board at Talonsoft. When John contacted me about doing a design, it was for Gettysburg. I'd already done a lot of thought about it at that time, as I'd done mods using the Sharpsburg, and Bull Run maps for BGG. Seemed like a natural to me, and I guess to John too.
What, in your opinion, is the hardest part about designing a game such as Gettysburg? Likewise, was anything easier than expected?
For me the hardest part was the maps. The sheer size of them was intimidating. Each took several months to do. Resolving the conflicts between various period sources is enough to drive one right over the hill. And - of course - they are never really done. In all candor, I can't think of anything that ended up easier than I anticipated.
If there were no detailed regimental strengths for certain brigades, what were some of the methods you used to estimate those strengths?
You know, regimental strengths is an interesting topic. The mere concept of having an exact number assigned for the strength advances a false, I believe, claim to exactitude, when such is really not attainable. I mean - if I have a real number for a unit on morning x - say from a morning muster - and the unit then marches 20 miles prior to entering a battle, does it then still have the same number of rifles present? I think history and common sense say no. You'll notice my regiments are rounded to the nearest 25 in the campaign game (though not in the historical scenarios). I felt that was more truthful than to claim false exactitude.
Now to answer your question, in almost every case in the game my initial regimental strength is an educated guess. Bussey and Martin explain the procedures they used to arrive at the various regimental strengths in their book. I had Bussey and Martin's figures which cover most, though not all, the regiments in the campaign and that supply an exact figure at a point in time. I then extrapolated back from July to strengths for the end of May/early June. I figured a march attrition of about 10% and factored in various casualties from engagements along the way. I then compared the values to the known brigade and division values from the musters nearest in time to the beginning of the campaign. I got a high degree or correlation when I did this. Very little change was needed. When it was needed - I made stuff up - which, if you read Bussey and Martin is just what they did on a number of occasions! If it's good enough for them, it's good enough for me.
How hard was it to find period maps of the areas you recreated in Gettysburg? I'm assuming since Gettysburg is the most popular battle of the ACW that you had plenty of raw material to work with in this case.
Ah, maps again. Tons of maps out there for this area and time. They all disagree with each other. That's an overstatement, but not a gross overstatement. On line sources abound. The Library of Congress usually had what I needed, if not them the National Archives. Some maps, however, are still not easily available. The Adams county map with the homeowner's names used for the Gettysburg map is still not posted at the LOC. I had to get a microfiche (I actually got a bunch of them for many counties that weren't posted then) from the LOC and work from there. When I started the online sources were a lot more scarce than now, so I worked from a bound volume of the Official Atlas, then from the electronic version from Guild Press. I'm a bit of a map nut, so this has been hard, but fun. I now have a copies of every county map for the eastern theater of operations, and pretty much all the other stuff available online - so I'm a happy boy.
Which side do you prefer to play? In other words, Yankee or Confederate?
The south. They are usually outnumbered, and in this campaign, in all but a few of the games, are committed to offensive action. I just think it is more challenging.
How long did it take from the time you first started work on the game until it was released in August of 2004?
If I remember correctly it was early 1998 when this thing got underway. I just dipped back to my early files. By fall of 1998 I had Brandy Station and 2nd Winchester scenarios completed. It has moved in fits and jerks since then. The uncertainty of the project for a while, lots of work at my day job, etc. You know - life in general.
Do you have any regrets about having to take certain things you wanted out of the game due to time or playability concerns, or were you pretty well satisfied when it was released?
There are obviously things I'd like to have included that weren't. There are aspects of game play that I think could be improved, or at least changed to match what I think is best. I'd love to see some changes in the ammo system, density fire effects, in fact a host of things discussed various places. That said, there have been significant changes in the system along the way. These have come in part due to player feedback, but probably in larger part to the input from the various designers and playtesters in this system's projects. John likes incremental change, and has a finely developed sense for the balance between playability and realism. I'm sure things will continue to evolve as the system progresses.
How much work goes into making a game of this size, time wise?
How about - a lot! I haven't kept time records, but clearly in the thousands of hours - even excluding the playtesting aspect of things.
Did you own most of the source material you mention in your game bibliography, or did you end up getting most of it as a result of this game?
I already had a substantial number of the sources, but probably picked up more during the making of the game than I had when I started.
What was the one single source you relied on most in making Gettysburg?
It would have to be the Official Records - the CD version from Guild Press. Other sources were the main data for aspects of the game, but everything ended up leading back to the OR's at some point.
How do you determine which hexes become objective hexes, and how do you refine the victory level of a scenario and the amount of points each objective hex is worth?
I've used a variety of methods contingent on the scenario. In a scenario covering an entire big map - in which geographical VP's would tend to force game play along a preconceived line - I've tended to lessen the importance of objectives nearer to the front, and used exit hexes and geographical points far to the rear of where the action is liable to develop. Smaller scenarios have used hexes associated with significant geographic features tied to the map and situation.
For the larger scenarios I've tried to have a
minor victory achievable by taking most of the hexes through the middle of a
map, with a major victory requiring either the taking of some hexes on the opposing
players side of the map - deep to the rear, or by inflicting seriously higher
levels of casualties than the other side. In the smaller scenarios generally
the geographic hexes are enough to win a major victory if the casualties aren't
too out of balance.
Some wargamers had grown worried that HPS only planned to recreate lesser known battles. Now that Gettysburg has come out, do you believe that this may boost sales and allow HPS to create even more new ACW games?
I certainly hope it will. This is the type of game I like to play, and I'd hope that there is the support out there necessary to keep these games being generated. The games so far have been wonderful. I've loved being exposed to some campaigns that I knew relatively little about. It's caused me to dip into some subjects, and grow in my knowledge of the period. There is plenty of room for both the lesser known campaigns and for the big ones. I hope to see more of both.
I found the process you used to come up with the troop ratings fascinating. Could you briefly describe the idea behind this process?
First - I've only employed the different ratings for the cavalry, the artillery, and the forces comprising the Union 8th Corps/Department of the Middle, the Union 22nd Corps/Department of Washington, and the Confederate 4th Corps - which sadly never enters into play in the campaign as presently constituted. I redid the ratings for everyone, but there was enough variation from previous ratings that I decided not to get too radical in my changes.
In essence I counted the number of engagements for each unit on each side. I computed average lengths of service for the units on each side. In both cases I treated infantry, cavalry, and artillery separately in doing the counting. I considered an F value as a raw mass of recruits, figured D/C as an average unit, B as veteran, and A as elite. I factored the increase in rating as a function of greater experience (time a unit has been in existence) modified by number of actual combat experiences. 3 months got a unit from F to E. 6 months from E to D, and 18 months to C. I got the data for this from Dyer and Sifakis. Greater than average combat experience could raise a unit above its normal level. Less combat experience retarded the increase in rating. Finally I raised some units one, or even two levels depending on casualties taken during the course of the war (this data from Fox).
This system resulted in general agreement with the numbers we are familiar with. There were a sufficient number of variations in well known units that I was deterred from applying the system to the entire armies. For example the 20th Maine rates out as a D. Mustered in 8/82. Less than a year of experience. Under the average number of combat experiences, so no raise to a C. Didn't take extraordinary casualties throughout its service, so no increase in that area. This rating would raise the hackles on many a player. I, personally, don't have a problem with it, as the unit's action at Gettysburg would be accounted for by a few good dice rolls in game turns. You can see the type of variations I mention if you look at the cavalry for each side. I've got charts and graphs aplenty on this, but won't bore you with them here.
When I first bought Campaign Corinth I thought Drew's Corinth map was massive. However, your maps dwarf even that map. It is obvious that you believe large maps make a game even better. Could you explain your reasoning behind this?
This is one area that John really let me run with. By the time I'd finished manually generating the Brandy Station map (a real chore) John had ramped up to a method of map generation that allowed for much larger maps. We'd talked over design philosophy regarding maps, and John let me have my way with it - for which I owe him a huge debt of gratitude.
I've always felt constricted with the maps of a given battle. Artificial bounderies channel action into set patterns. The opportunity to make that flank march doesn't exist. The whole concept of flanks really doesn't enter into the equation in any serious sense. War has been be defined as mass and maneuver. With no flanks maneuver is removed from the equation. Highly artificial IMO. The results are battles that shape up faster than they should which feeds the most frustrating aspect of these games - the huge casualty counts. Giving players the option to not immediately attack each other opens up the game, causes players to concern themselves with their flanks and rear, encourages cavalry to be used in a more historical role, lowers the casualty rate, in short - for me - makes the whole experience far more historical and enjoyable. We'll see if I'm a minority of one in this regard.