Thursday, January 3, 2013

I Am Napoleon

I am Napoleon!

Or at least, I was "Napoleon" for the duration of a fascinating year-long PBeM campaign run by my good friend and decades-long wargamer buddy, Dr. Harvey Mossman.

An excellent preview of the campaign, from the perspective of one of the corps commanders is viewable here. This excellent journal by Marshal Davout allows me to discuss the campaign without tooting my own horn too much.

Oh, yeah. I won.

(Napoleon can't be humble, you know.)

This sort of thing can be among the most rewarding wargame experiences ever. They are hard to pull off, not least because they require an extraordinary amount of work and dedication by the umpire/GM/organizer. How Harvey, a practicing medical doctor, found the time to do this, I'll never know.

I've played, literally thousands of board wargames since I started the hobby back in 1969. I only recall a few. And I've probably played in a hundred or so miniatures games in that time. I remember a few of those as well.

But I remember every one one of the few free kriegsspiels I've taken part in. They're so absorbing that they become as much a part of your life as that great vacation you took, that fun club you were in, that demanding college course, special dates you went on, your favorite birthdays.

I took part in another Napoleonic campaign once. I was the Prince of Orange in a Waterloo campaign that used the old AH map but Trevor Dupuy's QJM method for combat. We lost. I was the Japanese commanding admiral in a naval kriegsspiel based on a carrier battle that might have happened around Wake Island in 1941. I won that one. I ran a modern naval scenario using the Harpoon 4 rules to manage a large submarine battle between Soviet and NATE subs under the Arctic ice cap.

As a wargamer, the first principle to remember is to forget everything you know about wargames as much as you can. It's a completely different experience. You don't know the rules, for one thing. You certainly don't know much about what's going on -- and the enemy side is not the only mystery.

As Napoleon I had to steel myself for operating in an extremely murky environment. This is far more realistic than any other wargame experience you might have -- even taking part in a normal umpired or double-blind game. Yes, if you play Axis & Allies double blind you may be surprised -- but you at least know the rules. Not so in this case. All we had to guide us was general historical experience. The exact mechanics of the rules, combat resolution and movement were not shared.

The specific campaign that we refought was the 1806 campaign that led historically to the battles of Jena-Auerstadt. Naturally things played out somewhat differently this time, but perhaps not as differently as one might have expected. Once again it appears the campaign culminated in twin battles -- in this case Jena-Gera.

In part this was because I decided that the real Napoleon's strategic judgment was correct and so I endeavored to try to achieve a similar result. While I had the advantage of hindsight, however, so did my opponents, and I was afraid a simple recreation of Napoleon's historical approach would be too easily countered. So I decided to try to mask the fact I was copying the master by some initial feints and counter-marches.  I'm still awaiting Harvey's debriefing, so I don't know for sure how well that all worked -- but he has indicated that it had less effect at the beginning than I might have hoped but the effects proved much longer lasting than expected.

While I imitated Napoleon's strategy, my model for command style was more Ulysses S. Grant. While many of the corps commanders were frustrated at times at what they saw as a reticence to share intelligence and lay out detailed plans, I felt the end result vindicated my approach. The reality was that, due to the limitations of Nineteenth Century Command Control and Communications, anything I passed on to subordinate commanders was likely to be so outdated as to be positively unhelpful. By the time a report got to me at GHQ, it would be between 6-24 hours hold. Sent back down it would be another 6-24 hours old by the time the corps leader saw it. If the information was only 12 hours old it might be useful -- but if it was 48 hours old it was more likely to mislead than inform.

Likewise with my plans. As it was, I ended up sending out some confusing orders and counter orders despite my best efforts to avoid falling into the trap implied by the formula: Order + Counter-order = Disorder. I don' t think it happened too often, but had I attempted to micromanage or explain in explicit detail every step of my thinking or the evolution of my plans in real time I think it would have been a real mess at the receiving end.

Instead I preferred to let the subordinate commanders use their best judgement based on the facts on the ground as they saw it with some general guidance on my part. In fact, I had no explicit plan. Aside from a general line of advance and the hope I could achieve a good central position when contact was made, my plan was basically to keep everyone well in hand and in supporting distance so that when contact was made, nobody was in danger of being overwhelmed. And that's how it worked out -- which is immensely satisfying.

As I noted, we haven't had the "Great Reveal" yet, so I don't know what happened on the other side of the hill except for a few hints from Harvey, my own observations and the insight we derived from a single intercepted message. It appears, however, that the Prussians allowed themselves to become too spread out to properly react to the changing situations. It appears, based on what positions were reported to me, that some important parts of the Prussian army were not present on the battlefield when it counted. During the climactic battle on the last day, in contrast, every French Corps -- all eight of them -- were engaged. I viewed achieving that as my job as the overall CinC. How well they fought was up to the corps commanders, but I believed that I had put them in a position to win.

I'll say more once the the "Great Reveal" happens. I'm not  a big one about the Ws and Ls. I'm much more focused on just enjoying the process when I game. I don't denigrate winning, but it is really just one part of gaming for me. I will admit, however, that winning this sort of game is very, very satisfying. It appears I was blessed with no troublesome subordinates and I was rewarded for putting them in a position to win with an actual victory. But even had the battle gone the other way, I felt that I had done my part.

1 comment:

  1. Totally fascinating! I hope you will link to the "great reveal" and other post-game commentary when its available. Thanks!