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Posted on Jun 29, 2020 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Can Lee Be Taken? Worthington Games ‘Lee’s Invincibles: The Gettysburg Campaign 1863’. Board Game Review.

Can Lee Be Taken? Worthington Games ‘Lee’s Invincibles: The Gettysburg Campaign 1863’. Board Game Review.

Ray Garbee

Lee’s Invincibles: Gettysburg Campaign of 1863. Publisher: Worthington Games. Designer: Sean Chick. Price $65.00

Passed inspection: Color, unmounted map that conveys a sense of space and place of the 1863 campaign. A two-player game that captures the challenges facing each historical general. Block game brings the fog of war and limits intelligence of opposing forces.

Failed basic: It’s tough to put your whole army in motion at the same time, which can feel a little ‘gamey’ at times.   

It’s late June and naturally thoughts turn to the upcoming July 4th weekend and the annual commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg. You can find a multitude of games that recreate the battle of Gettysburg in detail. Games come in multiple scales, multiple game designs. Like the literature on the battle, you’d think there would be little left to say. But literature still yields books that offer insights and games do as well.  For example, two recent books that give solid insights into events surrounding the lead up and aftermath of Gettysburg are Scott Mingus ‘s ‘Flames Beyond Gettysburg’ and Thomas J. Ryan and Richard R. Schaus’s book on the aftermath of the battle, ‘Lee is Trapped and Must be Taken’.

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These books are relevant as they provide a lot of context for events that happen over the broader campaign, both before Gettysburg as well as the aftermath of the battle. Games that help you to understand these historical events as well as explore the alternative actions not taken are useful in providing context into the 1863 military campaign, as well as the broader strategic strokes in the east from 1862 through 1864.  You can find a number of games that cover the 1863 summer campaign. Lee’s Invincibles from Worthington Publishing is one such game.  

Lee’s Invincibles invokes both the aforementioned books as it captures the totality of the 1863 summer campaign with the two armies facing off across the Rappahannock River. You’ll have a chance to put your own spin on the campaign. Will the Confederates try yet again for an end run up the valley and into Pennsylvania? Will they opt for a more direct assault at Washington D.C.? Will the Union throw caution to the wind and attempt an early attack to crush the Rebel army, or will they conserve their strength and protect Washington, Baltimore and Harrisburg from the marauding Confederate troops?

Lee’s Invincibles is a solid workman-like game. The second in Worthington’s Blue and Gray series, the game uses the same series rulebook as the other entries. The game contains the following components:

  • Game board
  • Series rule book
  • Game specific rules booklet
  • A pair of battle resolution boards
  • A sticker sheet with the unit and marker labels
  • A supply of blue and brown blocks for the stickers
  • Five six-sided dice

The game board is unmounted, featuring a sheet of heavy cardboard. The game board has grid of numbered boxes used for tracking the game turn, Command Action Points and victory points for each side.  The map starts with a foundation showing major mountain and major rivers.  Overlaying the landscape features is a point to point network showing locations that range from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in the north to Fredericksburg, Virginia in the south. The relationship between locations is depicted through road, rail and port connections. The map is attractive and does a good job of capturing the spatial relationship of places, along with the value provided by the railroads and ports controlled by the Union.

The rule book is a glossy, eight-page paperback booklet. These are the series base rules and cover the core concepts of the Command Action Points, movement and combat.  The back page has nicely done examples of movement and combat to help ensure you are understanding the text of the rules.

The games specific booklet uses the same paper as the rule book, is basically four pages. Those pages define the special rules for the leaders, the victory conditions and the set up for the game.  

The battle resolution board is a handy tool used when resolving combat. You transfer the blocks in combat to the board, assigning them to a space that corresponds to any terrain being crossed to enter battle, or pieces that are in reserve. During combat, broken units are moved to the failed morale box.

The stickers are simple renderings of units. Unit types are clearly defined into infantry, garrison infantry (aka militia), cavalry and leaders. The stickers adhered nicely to the blocks. 

Those are the physical components of the game. But what happens when you put those pieces in motion? Lee’s Invincible’s kicks off with both armies facing each other across the banks of the Rappahannock river. Historically, in yet another attempt to take the war onto Union soil, Lee moved for the Shenandoah Valley using the mountains to screen his advance to the north.  It’s basically the same plan that resulted in the Army of Northern Virginia being checked at Sharpsburg in 1862. The Confederate player may try and replicate Lee’s historical plan, or they may explore other options that don’t necessarily lead you to a small town in southern Pennsylvania.

To counter this threat the Union’s Army of the Potomac is saddled with a tough set of mission objectives – keep the Confederates south of the Potomac river and simultaneously protect Washington D.C., Baltimore and Harrisburg from being occupied by Confederate forces.

Each turn, the players will determine their total number of available command action points or CAP’s. There is a base number of CAP’s that might be increased with a successful die roll by the army leader. It’s likely not surprising that Lee has a better command rating than Joe Hooker. Once the CAP’s are set, the Confederate player takes a player turn. First up, they will expend CAP’s to move units. Generally, one CAP moves one unit, though there are some exceptions for leaders and cavalry. The Union has some abilities using ports and railroads to shift some troops, though at a cost in CAP’s.

Once a player has moved, play shifts to the combat phase. Opposing units in the same space are shifted to the battle board. The defender gets first fire and inflicts hits before the attacker gets to attack. The combat system is a simple model of rolling a number of d6 with results of ‘6’ causing a hit. Units that suffer hits will check their morale. If they break, they move to a failed morale box where they await the outcome of the battle while not participating. At the end of the round, if the player has their army commander present, they may be able to reinforce the battle from adjacent spaces, based on a die roll against their leader’s command rating. Lee and Meade are both rated the same in this regard. Joe Hooker, not so much.

The battle continues in a series of rounds until either one player retreats, or a player’s last unit fails morale and they have no more units left on the battle line.

The first few turns of the game conveyed a sense of two fighters sparring and weaving their way from the Rappahannock River north towards Pennsylvania or into Maryland. It’s a classic battle of maneuver as each side jockeys for an advantage. The Confederates may be tempted to try and turn the Union’s flank and dash for Washington or Baltimore, but it’s a tough gamble as the Union can lean on the twin advantages of interior lines and a good railroad into D.C. and Baltimore.

There’s no source of reinforcements or replacements in the game, so the decision to engage in battle is not without cost. Every strength point you suffer is a permanent reduction in the strength of the army. At the same time, the game does not punish your victory points for taking heavy casualties.

The tension that comes from your units being a fixed pool, along with the anxiety that the fog of war of the block game brings to the table combine to create an exciting and dynamic game. There’s a lot of little things that come together to make Lee’s Invincibles an enjoyable tabletop game.

The victory conditions drive strategy and game play in an historical manner. The CSA cannot win unless they take their army north of the Potomac and camp there for 13 turns. The Union must protect their cities and keep the Confederates contained south of the Potomac river. The Union is properly motivated to attack the CSA as they need to drive them out, the CSA is motivated to maneuver, but not necessarily to attack. The exception is that attacking will on occasion be necessary in order to open up some maneuver options.

Lee’s Invincibles has a lot going for it – uncomplicated rules that capture the broad sweep of army level operations while keeping the players focused on the strategic goals of both sides.  But when you do a game on the Gettysburg campaign, it’s a lot like books on Gettysburg – everyone has an opinion. To paraphrase a Monty Python skit, ‘I didn’t come here for an argument’, but the Gettysburg campaign practically invites it. There’s so much information and so many subjective decisions that we could debate design decisions ad nauseum.

Let’s start with Meade’s command rating. I don’t think many folks would argue that George Meade was an operational genius that rivaled Robert E. Lee. Aside from Gettysburg, Meade’s clearly not the equal of Lee. The aftermath of the battle of Gettysburg proves that. Yet, Meade had a superb support network in the form of General Halleck and the War Department in Washington D.C. and the Bureau of Military Information he inherited from Joe Hooker.  Taken together, those factors are portrayed as providing the Army of the Potomac leadership equal to that of General Lee. The question becomes – was Meade really that much of a qualitative improvement over Joe Hooker? Thomas Ryan and Richard Schaus make a compelling argument that when given army command George Meade became as conservatively cautious as many of his predecessors. The game allows for space for Meade to be better than Hooker, but still not the equal of Lee. Fortunately, with a game such as Lee’s Invincibles is that it’s easy to implement changes to the leader ratings and see how that change plays out in the game.

So, there were things that were not wrong, but rather disappointing or confusing. From a component quality standpoint, it would have been nice if the paper used in the rule booklets had been a heavier weight. Paging through the rules for the first three games, it felt like the pages were already starting to show signs of wear. If this was a copy of Time magazine, that would fine, but for a document that should be around for years, it’s disappointing.

It’s likely a design decision, but the number of CAPS does not equal the number of divisions / corps in each army (ignoring garrisons). What this means is that you cannot move your whole army during a game turn. Part of me is really bothered by this as my perception is that you ought to be able to issue orders to all your units and get those units moving over the course of a game turn.

The net effect is you have to decide which units get left behind. This is a bigger challenge for the Confederates as your basically having to pick which unit (or units) end up being the rear guard for the army.  Granted that rear guard can retreat, getting to move an area or two depending on how that rearguard action plays out. But it feels a like your being forced to serve that unit up to be chewed if your opponent elects to concentrate his forces on it.

I’d be remiss in pointing out that the counterweight to a Confederate rear guard getting isolated and mauled is that this could pull the Union army out of position and expose Washington or Baltimore to a devastating (and potentially game ending) attack.

The game does not feature any reinforcements for either army. While the available reinforcements were not sizable, there were some reinforcements available to the Union and to a lesser extent the Confederacy in July of 1863. Historically, Union units were pulled in from West Virginia, North Carolina, Baltimore, Pennsylvania and New York.

You could argue that the garrison troops in Harrisburg represent at least part of the Pennsylvania militia that was being raised (there were over 18,000 militia moving south towards Hagerstown in the weeks after Gettysburg.) While there are significant numbers of militia depicted in the game and they do move slowly and have minimal combat effectiveness, that number is far short of the total number raised in the face of the Confederate invasion.

A common challenge with many block games is maintaining the orientation of your blocks as you move them back and forth to the battle board. If you are klutz like me, fumbling a block can be frustrating as you have to remember its strength points when you reorient the block. This is not a challenge unit to the game, just something to be aware of in your purchasing decision.

A minor gripe in the set-up instructions indicate that all railroads north of the Rappahannock are controlled by the Union. The only failing is that the Rappahannock River is not labeled on the map. While we can reasonably expect most players interested in games about the American Civil War to have an idea where to find the Rappahannock, a new-comer to the period might not know. It’s a small thing, but it brings to mind the axiom ‘if you can be misunderstood, you will be misunderstood.’

The victory conditions are a case of mixed emotions. On the plus side, they are clearly written and help focus the players’ attention as they devise a strategy. But all the CSA has to do is get at least three units North of the Potomac by turn three and keep at least three units there through the end of the game and they win. They don’t have to win a single battle once they get there, just keep those units from being eliminated.

In comparison, the Union player has a much more challenging task as trapping Lee’s army is not easy task. The troops in the Shenandoah Valley can slow Lee’s army, but are unlikely to stop him. The Union player has to make tough decisions as move too many troops north too quickly and the Confederates may dash east for a knockout blow against Baltimore or Washington D.C.  But while the cities offer an incentive for an early end to the game, they are not necessary to achieve victory over the course of the full 16 turns. 

An important feature in board gaming is the suitability of a game for solitaire play. Lee’s Invincibles is designed as a two-player game. The game does not include rules for automating one side – commonly referred to as a ‘bot’.  Given that restriction it is possible to play this as a solitaire game with that one person playing both sides. I’d like to think that the blocks still add a degree of the ‘fog of war’ to the game, so when swapping from seat to seat you may forget the details of each side’s specific deployments. But with the relatively few blocks on each side, it’s unlike to cause any operational surprises.  The experience still provides a compelling game as there are unpredictable events such as additional command action points, the outcome of reinforcement and supply die rolls and the uncertainty inherent in any battle.

At the end of the day, I’m left with a positive experience from playing the game. This is a fast playing game. Even games that go the full 16 turns will take at most three hours. The game definitely captures provides a good high-level overview of the 1863 campaign. You’ll get some insights into the decisions behind Lee’s gamble and the Union armies’ decisions on how best to parry the Confederate thrust across the Potomac River. The game does not get bogged down in minutiae and allows you to resolve large battles, albeit with some degree of abstraction.

In a genre filled with games on the Battle of Gettysburg, you may feel overwhelmed with choices. If you are new to table top wargaming or you have players looking for a shorter, less complex game, you’ll find Lee’s Invincibles provides a both rewarding and insightful experience.

Armchair General Score: 89%

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  2

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades. Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond, but his passion remains American Civil War naval gaming. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.

Battle of Warrenton 1863
Washington
XI Corps outnumbered

1 Comment

  1. The Union scores VPs until the Rebs cross the Potomac, and the Rebs score VPs if they have INFANTRY units in 3 separate locations north of the Potomac, so 1) they first have to score VPS to cancel the Union VPs, and 2) they have to spread out with slow-moving infantry units to score VPs, making it easier to be defeated in detail. So I don’t think it’s that easy for the Confederates to win in this manner (which you seem to suggest, but I may have misread you). In fact, it may be easier to win by splitting the Union army and defeating it in detail or capturing the higher VP locations (Washington—tough, but Baltimore and Harrisburg—much more doable). The fact that you can’t move all your units in one turn is frustrating and certainly a design decision, likely meant to represent how armies would get strung out over the road network. It’s not like all units arrived at the same time (or ever arrived) on the GB battlefield… I don’t think you mention how cavalry is treated—they don’t truly fight, they reconnoiter and possibly delay the enemy, which I thought was neat. I lost as the Union and the Rebels ;-) By the way, Meade beat Lee, so I don’t think his equal rating should be challenged…

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