Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bonaparte at Marengo -- a review

One of the hardest mental challenges there can be is to abandon our pre-conceived notions about something and look at a topic from the ground up.

Sure, generally it's best to build on the achievements of those who have gone before, but every so often someone needs to challenge the status quo.

The vast majority of wargames build on the foundation laid by Charles Roberts a half-century ago, but now and then somebody surveys a new lot.

Bonaparte at Marengo is a game like that.

Inside a standard bookcase-style box is a handsome mounted mapboard, about 80 wooden red and blue blocks, two copies of the rules and three plastic markers. That's it. From these minimal -- although high-quality -- materials designer Bowen Simmons crafts an elegant and absorbing strategy wargame. There are no dice, no charts or stacks of markers.

But there is a "look." Players who want the full story can check out Simmons' excellent Web site at www.simmonsgames.com but the story, briefly, is this: Inspired by old battle maps that showed the armies deployed in red and blue lines, Simmons wanted to capture the same look in a wargame. Achieving this goal meant rethinking wargaming conventions from the ground up.

The units are depicted as elongated wooden blocks which can be placed on their sides for fog of war. Unlike other block games, which rotated their square blocks in order to show losses, in BaM losses are shown by replacing a block with a weaker one, but the overall effect is similar.

The heart of the game system is the map, and the innovative way movement on the map is handled. The board is divided into "locales" depending upon the lay of the land, and each locale has several "approaches." Pieces can be in "reserve" in a locale or occupying one of its "approaches."

If opposing pieces are in facing approaches there can be an "assault," which is usually very costly for the attacker, but may be the only way to carry a position. Most losses come from "maneuver attacks" which are attempts to move into a locale occupied by the enemy. Pieces in reserve can move to "block" the approach, perhaps setting up an assault in a subsequent turn, but if the enemy retreats or doesn't have a reserve unit available for blocking duties the maneuver attacking piece can move into the locale, forcing a retreat. Cavalry units in reserve can retreat without loss but all other pieces will take losses. Outmaneuvering the other side is therefore the focus of activities, supported by occasional assaults as needed.

Each side is limited in how many units it can move. Each army has three "commands" available. A command is expended to move one or more units that follow the exact same path. Primary roads provide additional "free" commands for units that move along the roads.

Every strength point lost translates into a one-point drop in morale. If an army's morale drops to Zero it will generally lose. If neither army's morale drops to zero -- or both do -- then the game is decided on territorial victory conditions, but this rarely happens.

The entire feel of the game is very chess-like, in my opinion. It's very much move and counter move. There are many little intricacies and subtleties in the rules.

It's not a complex game, but it can be a hard one to grasp. In part this is because it's so different from any other wargame that previous wargame experience is of little help. In part it's also because of the minimalist style of Simmons' rules. Many key aspects of play are implied by the rules rather than spelled out explicitly. Since the game came out the forums have been filled with questions. In almost all cases the answers are there, in the rules, but aren't always obvious.

It's one of the most absorbing and intriguing wargames I've ever played and tops my list of favorites. It does have a few shortcomings, however.

Play does tend to be stereotyped. The general line of play involves the Austrian army gathering in front of Marengo and forcing a breach in the French line, followed by a retreat and a final showdown near the victory objective stars on the board edge. If the French player times it right the Austrian player will fall a turn or loss factor short of victory. Games often come down to a 1-point or 1-turn margin.

This wouldn't be a big problem, except that it also means that the historical course of the battle is rarely replicated. The French have no incentive to launch a late-game counter attack to break the morale of the Austrian army and salvage a victory from defeat. If the French are in a position to launch such a counterattack they're almost certainly also in a position to win the game anyway by standing on the defense.

Simmons Games later title Napoleon's Triumph uses a similar system that succeeds in being closer to history while also providing many more strategic options and is, overall, a better game that BaM, but BaM does deserve credit for being first.

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