Thursday, January 17, 2008

SPI's Austerlitz -- terrain issues

By 1973 Jim Dunnigan's wargame-producing system was cranking up into full gear. One technique that made this possible was creating game systems that could be ported to cover many different battles. One of these was the Napoleon at War system which started with Napoleon at Waterloo, but was soon expanded to cover many other Napoleonic-era battles and, with suitable modifications, formed the basis for the "quads" on many other eras from pike and shot through modern warfare (and even naval warfare in Sixth Fleet!).
The main advantage of this approach from a gamer's point of view was providing a large number of new game situations without requiring the player to learn a whole new set of rules. The underlying validity of this approach has been proven time and again and still powers game systems such as Borg's Commands and Colors, Advanced Squad Leader, Great Campaigns of the American Civil War, Great War at Sea, PanzerGrenadier and many others.
The disadvantage of this approach is that it can result in a game system that ends up ignoring the factors that made each battle unique or affected it in an unusual way. One might easily end up with a wargame on a battle that fails to bear much resemblance to the historical event. As much as SPI emphasized history in it designs, this flaw existed in many of their games.
Among them is the NAW-system game Austerlitz: Battle of Three Emperors.
The state of the art in game design in the 1970s advanced at a rapid clip, but unevenly. There were early strides with improved orders of battle and a lot of the really big mistakes that rendered early Avalon Hill efforts like Stalingrad and Afrika Korps fanciful were corrected with better research. Austerlitz includes a complete and reasonably accurate OB that makes some interesting distinctions in strength and movement capabilities between different units and between the two armies as a whole. Overall, the French have a significant edge in speed, generally moving 1 movement point faster than the equivalent Austro-Russian units. Fair enough.
Terrain analysis in 1970s era games, on the other hand, still tended to be simplistic and often missed the point. In Austerlitz the waterways are depicted appropriately, but the towns tend to be too small, which starts to distort the effect the battlefield had on the course of the fighting. The game also doesn't make any functional distinction between cavalry and infantry other than movement allowances, so cavalry units can benefit from fighting in towns, which is quite unhistorical. Artillery units can also benefit from occupying town sites, which is also contrary to historical practice and experience.
The game most misses the mark, however, in its treatment of elevation. One can't read an account of Austerlitz without soon hearing about the Pratzen Heights, which was the dominant terrain feature affecting the fighting. The mile-wide plateau is reduced to a single-hex knoll, which ends up being a position of minor local importance instead of the battlefield's key terrain.
Apparently the designer, John Young, was misled by the gently rolling terrain of the battlefield into thinking the elevations were not important because there were no high, steeply-sided hills. (Actually, there was one, the Santon, on the French left, but it doesn't appear in the game at all).
But a height advantage in military terms is extremely relative, not absolute. In otherwise flat terrain a very slight elevation advantage can take enormous importance, while in hilly ground a steep hill may be unimportant if it's overlooked by higher ground nearby.
On the Austerlitz battlefield the Pratzen Plateau was important, not because it was difficult ground, but because it was high enough to hide troop movements, provide a defensive advantage and when occupied by the French, completely dominate the Allied position.
Coping with this kind of effect was beyond the scope of a 1970s-era wargame, but it means that Austerlitz, the game, ends up bearing little resemblance to the actual battle.
Other aspects of the game working against its historical authenticity are the victory conditions, which seem to be designed to induce the Allied player into making an attempt to strike the French right as per the actual historical plan. This course of action stands little chance of success, however, and most allied players turn their attention to winning the slugfest in the center of the battlefield. Whichever army becomes demoralized first (by losing 70 combat factors worth of units) will almost certainly go on to lose the game, given the severe penalties of demoralization. (Demoralized units lose their zones of control and have their combat strengths cut in half.)
Another terrain oddity on the map is the "Abbey" near Sokolnitz Castle. The game makes this a very strong position, quadrupling the combat strength of any unit occupying it, but I don't see a reference to such a location in accounts of the battle. It doesn't appear in the game Napoleon's Triumph, which has a very detailed and sophisticated terrain analysis nor is there any reference to it in Osprey's campaign book Austerlitz 1805, which includes several detailed battlefield maps.
Austerlitz is an interesting and challenging game. As a matter of fact, it's one of the best-balanced wargames ever. According to's statistics as of Jan. 16, 2008, the French side as won 793 times, and the Allies 783 times, a ratio of 50.3/49.7. It's just not very much like Austerlitz.

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