Back to Game Photos Page

SPI's Terrible Swift Sword: The Three Days of Gettysburg


by Russ Gifford




Photos by Russ Gifford


Terrible Swift Sword was the ‘monster’ game on the American Civil War battle of Gettysburg. Created by Richard Berg and first published in 1976 in an SPI flat pack, this was an important game for a number of reasons. It was the first hugely popular game with three maps and 2000 + counters. It was the first of the grand-tactical games for SPI, meaning it was the first for most of the gaming world. More than a ‘move-fight’ it included not only ranged weapons, man-to-man combat, multiple formations, but also morale.

Yep – and all of this was a year before Squad Leader!

Inside the System
This game revolutionized the board gaming world. Essentially TSS was miniatures game in a board game box.

Terrible Swift Sword deservedly won the 1976 Charlie Roberts Award for the “Best Pre-20th Century Boardgame.” When they moved the game into the detergent box in 1977, they added a page of errata that smoothed out the rough spots. (Specifically, they separated the morale into a separate number instead of tying it to the strength of the unit.)

Looking back, was it that great? Yes. It was also important because it grew beyond what it started out as.

Changes as the TSS-system Aged
In 1979, Berg followed up with Bloody April, the Battle of Shiloh. Shiloh was more cramped, and it lost the ‘grand’ feel of TSS. But it did add some important pieces to the puzzle. The 1978 S&T game Stonewall used the system and proved it could transfer the excitement to the single map gameboard, too.

In 1980, SPI tapped Eric Lee Smith to create a series of TSS-system games to fit on single maps. The result was the superb Great Battles of the American Civil War (GBACW) series. It fostered some important changes.

Differences between 1st Edition TSS and GBACW
GBACW allows all units in stacks to fire their weapons - which was very important for guns. The cannons were naked in TSS if they had no infantry support, but they couldn't fire if the infantry stacked on top of them! This worked fine in TSS, since the guns were generally in bombardment mode. But the single map games of the Great Battles put the guns on the line. (Thus, the Counter-Battery phase is also gone from the GBACW sequence of play.)

Another big change: By 1980, SPI’s steps into full color maps now allowed the creation of multiple levels of elevation. Now the ability to have true hills becomes part of the battlefield, and thus line of sight becomes important. The new rules handle this well.

The biggest change in the GBACW system was the adoption of an addition made by Berg in Bloody April. Brigade Combat Effectiveness (BCE) – essentially a brigade level morale system – was instituted to correct the problems that grew when the original errata split the morale from the combat unit’s strength points.

With the original morale tied to the strength point level, it automatically prevented 'overuse' of troops beyond their endurance. A 1 SP or 2 SP unit would originally have fallen to a 1 or 2 morale unit. Thus, they’d rarely stand through Defensive Fire since they’d have to roll a one or two to stay on the field. They’d rout away rather than die in droves. With the creation of the separate morale level, units could take more punishment, and ‘gamer’ commanders would unrealistically push a unit into total obliteration. This would not happen in real life - at some point in taking losses, the remaining troops say 'uh uh - not us!'

So Berg created BCE for Bloody April, and Eric Smith put it into the GBACW system. After a brigade reaches a certain number of casualty losses, they do a brigade retreat, then check morale. Fail, and the whole brigade routs away. Even if they pass the morale check, or when they eventually rally, they will no longer enter an enemy zone of control, never initiate melee, and have a -1 on all combat fire. An elegant and realistic answer to the situation!

More importantly in game terms, units that fail BCE costs their side big victory points! So, as a unit approaches BCE status, the prudent player pulls them off the line, and waits for a night turn to return some stragglers into the ranks, giving them a chance to be used a least a little at a later time.

These rules were mostly for the GBACW gamettes – smaller, playable games for Pea Ridge, Wilson's Creek, Cedar Mountain, and Jackson at the Crossroads, and Battle of Corinth, etc. But by 1983, SPI/TSR Eric Lee Smith put all the experience in the small games to publish another monster – Gleam of Bayonets (Antietam). (Smith had done much of the development work before the fall of SPI.)

Completing the Circle
In 1985, TSR completed the re-germination by issuing the second edition Terrible Swift Sword. All the battle-tested GBACW system rules were put back into TSS, with an expansion that included almost everything from the original game. The result is nearly perfection for original TSS players. Only the physical components of the map are a disappointment compared to the original system. But even these expand the playability of the game, bringing the multiple height levels into TSS. The unit counters now include color-coding for divisions and color bands to mark different brigades. It is very workable.

Final Thoughts
While Richard Berg changed the GBACW to an impulse system in 1988, then issued Gettysburg for GMT, and another version using rules listed as ‘4.x’ (for 4th generation) rules, the original and the resulting clarification for the second edition are easily as playable, and as exciting, as they were in 1976! Today, thirty years on, the system still shines!


© 2005, by Russ Gifford