Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Battle of Nations

The Battle of Nations (SPI, 1975) is an old-fashioned straightforward hex-and-counter wargame using the Napoleon at War game system. It was well-received at the time, receiving a 6.9 overall rating from Strategy & Tactics readers making it the 15th-ranked Pre-World War II game in January 1977.
It's gotten a second lease on life as one of the more popular titles offered by the online game-playing service
The situation is dramatic enough. Napoleon was brought to bay by the combined armies of the anti-French coalition at the city of Leipzig in October 1813. This resulted in the largest battle of the Napoleonic wars, with more than 500,000 troops on the field.
The system is standard SPI-style with combat-movement factors on the units, a Combat Results Table and locking zones of control (a unit must stop and a cannot leave a hex next to an enemy unit except through a combat result.)
Uniquely among the NAW-system games there are no separate artillery units, which changes tactics significantly.
The battlefield is strewn with a large number of towns that double defense as well as some hills and streams. The most important feature of the battlefield are several rivers running through the middle of it that can only be crossed at some bridges. This has the effect of dividing the battle into several smaller battles. The French have the central position and can use their interior lines to switch between fronts. The French have an initial advantage in numbers but get few reinforcements while more than half the Allied army arrives during the game.
The game is somewhat unusual for one that depicts a historical battle in that the most popular scenario really amounts to a big "what-if." The Grand Campaign game covers the entire four-day battle from 16-19 Oct. 1813, but historically there was no serious fighting on the second day. This will not happen in The Battle of Nations. As a matter of fact, the campaign game will often be decided on the second day.
While historically Napoleon did not attack on Oct. 17 he probably should have, because time was against him as the Allied army became stronger as time passed.
Victory in the game is based on losses. Losing a set number of combat factors results in an army's demoralization. In this game demoralization explicitly equals defeat, although the reality is that it's very hard to win any NAW game once demoralized.
BON is a little out of the ordinary because the Allied demoralization level increases as more troops arrive. The French have an opportunity for a quick win, but as more Allied troops arrive that chance slips away and eventually its the French who have the lower demoralization level
The Grand Campaign is, by far, the most popular way to play on Hexwar, and it's a fairly balanced contest. Hexwar statistics as of Jan. 20, 2007 show 3,172 French victories, 2,717 Allies wins and 77 draws.
The First and Third Day scenarios are decidedly less popular, albeit for different reasons.
The problem for the First Day scenario is that it's very drawish. It's hard for either army to inflict enough losses to achieve victory in the five turns. Hexwar stats show 76 French wins, 79 Allies wins and 110 draws. It's a more even fight than the full campaign and takes much less time, but most players prefer their games to end with a clear winner.
The Third Day scenario, which covers the actual day of major fighting, is grossly imbalanced. Hexar stats show just 18 French wins and 200 Allied victories! There are just 14 draws, which ought to be considered moral victories in this scenario.
The main action in the game happens on two fronts, with some minor action in two secondary areas.
The first secondary front is the region southwest of the Elster River, which starts with a couple of Austrian units astride the French line of communications. The French usually dispatch a handful of units to chase the Austrians away. Once the Austrian units are eliminated or retreat its fairly easy for the French to seal it off because there are just a few bridges providing access.
Just east of this zone is the area between the Ester and Pleisse rivers. While sometimes important fighting develops in this area, it's also easily sealed off and often turns into a strategic cul de sac.
The most important fronts are in the North, where the French are faced with delaying the Russo-Prussian Army of Silesia (later reinforced by the Army of the North), and the southeast, where Napoleon typically attacks the Army of Bohemia seeking the quick win. Time is of the essence, however, because help is on the way from the Reserve Army and Bennigsen's Russian/Polish Army.
This combination of attacking and defending roles for both players creates an interesting and entertaining wargame situation.
Admittedly the game's realism suffers a bit because there's no reason for the second-day lull in game terms. This was a common problem with many SPI games, where factors such as fatigue, command confusion and logistics that created historical delays don't play a roll. Other games with this problem include Borodino and Cemetery Hill.
On the other hand from a game player's point of view the situation is interesting and challenging, and in my view this outweighs the unrealistic pacing.

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