Continuing on in this new series devoted to the best looking boards found in the wargaming world, today we take a look at a very good game with an under appreciated board designed by Robert Shields. My guess is you probably don’t know who Robert Shields is as he has only illustrated maps for 2 games, including Battle Hymn Volume 1: Gettysburg and Pea Ridge (2018) and Commands & Colors Tricorne: Jacobite Rising (2020) both from Compass Games. I wish that Robert had done more maps, but it appears he is not working on any more recent projects, which is a shame as he has some real skill and did a great job on both of these games.
The maps for Battle Hymn Volume 1, which actually includes 2 different maps for two separate games, are very period appropriate and just feel very American Civil War. Most of us typically think of Rick Barber when we think of ACW maps, but Robert Shields has some really interesting takes on these battlefields that I really like. First point I want to highlight in this piece is the title blocks for the maps. As you can see below, great care was taken to provide a real historical immersion into the game with the way the title of the map was written and laid out. The listing of the Commanding Generals was a nice touch but also the dates of the battle being July 1st through 3rd, 1863. And you can see the first evidence of his use of an interesting technique in the background, but more on this later.
Anytime I have read anything about the Battle of Gettysburg, I have seen where the local road network and the city’s position on the east side of the mountains were important factors in why the battle was fought there. The terrain also played a major role, which included good defensive ground such as Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill, and Cemetery Hill. These factors must always be highlighted in any game covering this seminal battle and Battle Hymn definitely includes homage to these important features.
In May 1863, Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had scored a major victory over the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville. Brimming with confidence, Lee ultimately decided to press his advantage won there and go on the offensive and invade the North for a second time (the first invasion had ended at Antietam the previous fall). In addition to bringing the conflict out of Virginia and diverting northern troops from Vicksburg, where the Confederates were under siege, Lee hoped to gain recognition of the Confederacy by Britain and France and strengthen the cause of northern “Copperheads” who favored peace.
On the Union side, President Lincoln had lost confidence in the Army of the Potomac’s commander Joseph Hooker, who was reluctant to confront Lee’s army after the defeat at Chancellorsville. On June 28th, Lincoln named Major General George Gordon Meade to succeed Hooker. Meade took the bulls by the horn and immediately ordered the pursuit of Lee’s army of 75,000, which by then had crossed the Potomac River into Maryland and marched on into southern Pennsylvania.
As you can see in the picture below, Gettysburg sits not in the middle of the map but is central because of its location and connection to the road network and its impact on the the battle. Not much fighting was done inside the city limits itself, outside of the initial skirmishes between forward CSA and Union Cavalry troops moving into the area on July 1st, but Gettysburg commanded the roads in the area as they all lead to and through the city. As the bulk of both armies headed toward Gettysburg, Confederate forces led by A.P. Hill and Richard Ewell were able to drive the outnumbered Federal defenders back through town to Cemetery Hill, located a half mile to the south. The roads are clearly drawn on the map and are highlighted with their gray hue that identifies them against the light browns and greens of the terrain that they move through. Immediately to the right of Gettysburg sits one of the most important parts of the battlefield in Cemetery Ridge. Its elevation and preeminent position overlooking the battlefield was key to the Union as they could see enemy troop movements and position their artillery so as to pick apart the Confederate formations as they advanced. The Union troops that were chased out of Gettysburg on the first day took up positions on Cemetery Ridge and the Confederate’s reluctance to attack at that point allowed Union troops to the south to advance and take up defensive positions at Culp’s Hill and Little Roundtop.
I really love the choice of colors by Robert as they are all muted but really stand out on the map and give one the impression of dread in many ways. Gray is a color that projects solidness and static neutrality. I always think of a cloudy sky threatening rain, or of ash from a forest fire or lead from rifle bullets and cannon shot when I see gray. It is a calming color because it is neutral, being made up of equal parts black and white and doesn’t normally show action or excitement. But, as I look over the map and its chosen colors, I feel that I am transported to the battlefield and can feel the solemn reverence that it is owed as a deciding battle in the American Civil War.
I also really like the hex choices as they are not completely drawn on but only highlight the 6 points of the hexagon on the map. This really creates an interesting impression as one looks over the map as it gives it somewhat of a form of movement and action which is opposite of the color choices. I also really like the choice of paper used in the map, as you can see the grains of the paper and when mixed with the shapes on the map, creates another level of depth to the impression and look of the map.
On July 3rd, Lee ordered an attack by around 15,000 troops on the enemy’s center located on Cemetery Ridge. The assault, commonly known as Pickett’s Charge, managed to temporarily pierce the Union lines but ultimately failed at the cost of thousands of rebel casualties. The Union force there was prepared and dug in and had every line of fire covered with cannon filled with grapeshot. The results were catastrophic to the force and morale of the Confederates and Lee was forced to withdraw his battered army toward Virginia on July 4th. The Union had won in a major turning point, stopping Lee’s invasion of the North. It inspired Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which became one of the most famous speeches of all time.
I am fascinated with the way Robert drew up Little Round Top and Round Top as they were key to the Union defense of the right flank. The addition of the tree images on the map is also a nice touch, as they are shown all through the map but really stand out here as they were very important to the defense of the position. The rubble field at the foot of the hills is a very nice tough as well and gives the impression of strength in the position. The Peach Orchard is also clearly called out in cursive text on the bottom of the rise of Houck’s Ridge. In fact, you will find this cursive writing all over the map identifying key areas, some more important than others.
Here is a look at the map of the same area but zoomed out a bit to show the connection of the Peach Orchard and Emmitsburg Road. The Peach Orchard saw fighting on July 2nd where the Union Army of the Potomac included the 68th Pennsylvania Infantry on the west side at the south point of Graham’s Emmitsburg Road line, the 3rd Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment on the orchard’s south side near the Emmitsburg Road, and on the north side of the orchard along the south side of the east-west road, Thompson’s cannons and, closer to the Emmitsburg Road were found Ames’ cannons. It was three o’clock before Confederate Colonel Alexander, of Longstreet’s Corps, had his batteries unlimbered in the edge of the woods west and south of the peach orchard.
Something that you cannot appreciate in these larger shots is the level of detail that Robert put into the makeup of each of the hexes. He uses a technique called stippling that simply uses a lot of dots to give an image or location a feeling of depth. As you look at a blow up of Houck’s Ridge, you can see that stippling and can appreciate the effect it gives off. He also takes a great deal of time to highlight the edges of the woods by making the edge a darker shade of green than the center of the woods. This gives a really nice touch to the map and makes them come alive.
Robert uses dashed white lines to show where there is a rise in terrain, as in the case of a hill or ridge. As you can see in the picture above, and in the next picture showing Seminary Ridge and McPherson’s Ridge, these dashed lines create almost a circle around the elevated terrain so that players will not mistake them for just another hex but are confronted by a slope where they must climb up to gain position atop the elevated ground.
One last point I will make about the graphical presentation of the board is that the hex numbers are large enough to be easily referenced at setup but also don’t dominate the hex and cause issues with interfering with play. They are right sized and very well done. I found this board to be very playable and also an aesthetic pleasure to use while we played.
One other thing that all wargame boards have to incorporate is the many administrative boxes that we use to hold units or to use as references for combat and other key functions of the game. Robert does a fantastic job with these boxes as well. The Shattered Union Units Box and the Eliminated Union Units Box are drawn on the map clearly but are also placed into the context and continuation of the board and its terrain as you can still catch those elements inside the confines of the boxes.
The Terrain Key is also found on the right of the board and is accessible by both players, although one will have to move over to get a good look at it. But it is clearly defined, with fantastic contrasting colors of light green and gray being used to create an offset to align the important information needed such as Movement Point Costs, To Hit Die Roll and whether the terrain Blocks LOS.
The board for Pea Ridge is also quite stunning but we didn’t get to play that one so I will not cover it in this piece.
We really enjoyed our play experience with Battle Hymn Volume 1: Gettysburg and Pea Ridge from Compass Games. The rules were very approachable with lots of good details that were based in history, a good combat system that keeps the battle interesting and engaging but is simply withering and the game evokes a lot of emotions. I played as the CSA and it was heart breaking knowing the outcome and seeing what those men would have encountered going against those formidable Union defenses as they had the high ground and were not going to give it up easily. The board is a thing of beauty and is one of the most well done American Civil War boards that I have played on. I really enjoyed the detail that Robert used and his efforts with adding both contrast and color to the board, which gave it a sense of movement and the stippling technique to tie it all together.
Here is a look at our unboxing video for Battle Hymn Volume 1: Gettysburg and Pea Ridge:
We also did a video review and you can watch that at the following link:
The next board that we will take a look at in the series is From Salerno to Rome: World War II – The Italian Campaign, 1943-1944 from Dissimula Edizioni designed and illustrated by Sergio Schiavi.
Here are links to the previous entries in the series:
Kekionga!: A Dark and Bloody Battleground, 1790 from High Flying Dice Games
Campaigns of 1777 in Strategy & Tactics Magazine #316 from Decision Games
Thanks for your great series on maps!
I am a “map-person” and share your appreciation of a map that immerses you in the action. Battle Hymn is a great choice for you discussion, although I wish you had included some additional information of the Pea Ridge map. The mountains of Arkansas are totally different from the fields and hills of Gettysburg and Mr. Shields also lavishes his talent on this map with the terrain dominating troop movement and engagements.
Looking forward to future map-centric discussion,
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Not speaking as an authority, but is seems to me that the subject of map art/aesthetics gets more discussion where US Civil War games are the setting as compared to other game settings. Just a sense I get, but maybe I’m way out in left field with this observation. Thoughts?
Mr. Smith is a great designer and so busy I do not know how he keeps up. Thanks for info on the maps
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The article says the map artist Robert Shields “did a great job” on the map for Battle Hymn, but I strongly disagree with this. When we actually tried to play one of the games (Pea Ridge), between the graphics used on the map and the rulebook (which I thought was otherwise pretty good as these things go), we just could not figure out how to interpret some of the critical ridge lines, so we had to make a guess at their terrain effects.
For a game map, as opposed to something you just want to ogle and hang on your wall, making the terrain clear and unambiguous so you can correctly apply its effects is the single most important thing. Aesthetics are much less important.
Because of this, as far as I’m concerned, the Battle Hymn maps were not “beautiful”, they were dysfunctional.
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To each their own opinion. We played Gettysburg, which the article mentions and covers, and didn’t have the same issue. We thought the map was very well done both functionally and aesthetically. Thanks for sharing.
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