Friday, June 13, 2008

Boney does the Merengue

Eric's choice again, and for this week's extravaganza he chose Bonaparte at Marengo (BGG entry), from Simmons Games. I was very happy with the choice as it's a game I've been very intrigued by for some time, but it never hit my radar until it was out of print and unavailable, and I've been often tempted to try to pick one up on eBay. I did pick up the next game in the series, Napoleon's Triumph, and it's likely that it will see table time in a future TSttC report, but onto this week's choice.

The most fascinating things about BaM are that the map is totally unlike any regular wargame map in terms of regulating movement, and it doesn't have any sort of randomized combat resolution system, instead using a hidden strength (kinda like a block game) system, each unit being represented by a stick with 1-3 symbols to represent its current strength and unit type. As a unit loses steps you just replace it with another stick of the same type and reduced strength.

Starting with the map, it initially looks quite confusing, but it makes sense very quickly. It's mostly like an area movement map, an area is called a locale, with locales varying in size and the number of adjacent locales. Units occupying the center of the locale are described as being in reserve in the locale. However, units not only occupy the center of the locale, but can also occupy the edges, called approaches, of the locales. This can only be done when the adjacent locale, i.e. the one bordering that approach, is enemy occupied, and if that adjacent locale is vacated by enemy units then any units that were on the approach (the adjacent approach) are moved back to reserve. Now, reading this in the rule book, it is so different to anything I've come across before that it was kinda hard to grasp. However, in play it quickly became second nature, and makes a great deal of sense.

When moving against an enemy occupied locale, there are four possible combinations: both friendly and enemy units are in reserve in their respective locales; friendly units are on the approach and enemy units are in reserve or on other approach(es), i.e. any approach except the adjacent approach; friendly units are in reserve and enemy units are on the adjacent approach; both friendly and enemy units are on the same approach (called the adjacent approach).

In the first case the enemy units in reserve have the choice of moving up to the blocking approach, leaving a sort of in-your-face type stand-off with both sides occupying the approaches, or retreating from the locale. In the second case, they have no such option, and all units (including those on other approaches, i.e. blocking other adjacent locales) must retreat. When retreating, if there are infantry units present then one infantry step is lost from the retreating units. This is known as maneuver combat, and it should be clear that maintaining a force in reserve to cover exposed approaches is critical. Choosing when to block approaches and in what strength is an important decision.

In the third case the friendly units are not permitted to move against the adjacent locale, but can move up to the blocking (adjacent) approach. The final case is where the actual fights occur, and is called an assault.

On initiating an assault the attacking player reveals one of his units, the leading unit, showing the strength and type, then the defender does the same. Terrain effects on the defender’s approach are now included, which may reduce the attacker’s strength by one point. (Infantry is always reduced, sometimes cavalry and artillery, and cavalry may be prevented from assaulting at all via that approach.) The side with the higher strength is the winner, defender winning ties. Both sides lose a single step, then the losing side loses steps equal to the difference between the two strengths. If the defenders won, then they continue to occupy the approach and the attackers are moved into reserve in their locale. If the attackers won, then the defenders (including units on other approaches) must retreat (remembering the infantry retreat loss mentioned above) and all the attackers units that were on the approach, not just the lead unit, occupy the vacated locale.

Each turn you get 3 command points, with each movement (one or more units all performing the same move) or attack (whether maneuver or assault) taking a command point. The only exceptions are primary road movement and artillery bombardments, which don’t require command points. There are also a couple of wrinkles for artillery on defense and cavalry pursuit, but they never came up in our games.

Yep, you read that right. Games. Plural. Because BaM plays quite quickly, around 90 minutes, although our first one took almost 2 hours as we came to grips with the rules.

Our first game was initially planned as a learning game, aiming to do a few turns then start over, with me randomly getting the French, but we just kept it going all the way through. We both made a lot of mistakes, screwed up a few rules, but by the end we were beginning to figure out how to do stuff. Eric’s Austrians didn’t get very far, stalling out not far from their entry point. We spent a lot of time dancing on the French left flank, to no great benefit for the Austrians, by which time the French were able to activate all their units and even bring up reinforcements, which left the Austrians unable to crack the French line, and us figuring out who won.

Victory is by demoralizing your opponent’s army or by the Austrians gaining geographical objectives, without being demoralized beforehand. Each step lost reduces your morale one point on the track, with the French starting at 17 points, the Austrians at 16, and being reduced to 0 is demoralization. The Austrians can also win by occupying 2 of the 8 objective locales at the far end of the board. However, these are grouped in three different colors, and the Austrian player has to occupy different colored locales to win. The French player wins if the Austrian player doesn’t achieve the geographical objectives, and neither player has reached their demoralization level.

So, technically, I won this first game, although I don’t really count it, as we were both learning and the onus is definitely on the Austrian player to press the action, so they have the harder game. In fact, from this playing it looked like it was a tough nut to crack for the Austrians, but I had a few ideas of how to play them, as we turned it around and had another go.

Our second game was totally different to the first. I immediately pressured the French center and right flanks, attacking with 2-step units to wear him down, and then driving through with my big 3-step units to force the win in the center, and using my artillery to reduce him prior to assaulting on his right. This opened up the flank and allowed me to start pressuring his line from multiple locales, sucking French units to defend approaches, then moving into the locale from an undefended direction, with no units left in reserve to block the approach. This caused a lot of retreats, and consequent infantry losses, pushing the French morale to the brink of demoralization.

Meanwhile my right flank was performing a holding action, using 2-step infantry to block the approaches in the locales, and they saw no action until the very end of the game, when Eric performed an assault, coming off the worst, but the game was already slipping away from him by that point.

I was able to drive through his right flank all the way down the board, always threatening to surround his center. I already had one objective locale and was pushing for another, but in the end was able to force another retreat and infantry loss to push the French to their demoralization level for an Austrian win, with a few turns to spare. I know I could have played better, as I think I got my artillery into position to fire only once in the whole game.

Here's the pics of the final position:



I know a couple of my other gaming buddies were underwhelmed by BaM, but I really liked it, and that second game was very tense and exciting. (When I asked about it, it sounds like they played once and didn't figure out how to use the mechanisms, with their game going very like our first game, so I can understand how they weren't too impressed.) Visually, I think it’s one of the best wargames I’ve seen. The designer, Bowen Simmons, states in his designer’s notes that he wanted to create a game that looked like the old battle maps, where the forces were depicted as a number of blue and red ‘sticks’, what he came to refer to as ‘The Look’. I think he’s achieved that and then some.

However, even better, in my view, is that in doing so he’s also not made any compromises in the game play, which I think is a tremendous achievement. The concept of locales and approaches presents a refreshing and very innovative take on the problems of regulating movement and combat, and makes for a very tense game of maneuver within a very simple mechanism. Understanding the interactions of the geographical mechanism, the impacts of being on the approaches or not, not getting isolated, flanking attacks (and even the threats of flanking attacks), along with the simple, yet very realistic feeling, combat system, all give plenty to think about that had my head hurting by the end of the second game.

Initially I had a hard time reading the map, as The Look has the approaches faded into the background, and without regular sized locales trying to figure out which locales the roads go through was a little bit of a challenge. However, I got used to it, and it wasn’t a huge deal. To be quite honest I’m more than happy to deal with it because the overall look of the game is very worth any of the minor presentation issues, and is one of the most handsome games to view while in play. It really gives the feel of being a general, commanding units on a battlefield, that pushing cardboard around a mapsheet just doesn't match.

A bigger problem is that I don’t own this game and I would really like to have it available. This is an even bigger problem because it is now out of print, and Simmons Games have indicated that they are going to focus their efforts on getting their new games into print, not reprinting old games. Bugger. Fortunately, I already have their Napoleon’s Triumph (Austerlitz) on my shelf, and I’ll certainly pick up The Guns of Gettysburg when it gets released. But for BaM I’m left with eBay, although I just may force myself to not get it and rely on my gaming partners to provide the copy when we wish to play, while I focus on games that they don't have. Man, that’s going to be hard.

My choice next time, and I had been thinking about going back to Devil’s Cauldron to try an intermediate scenario. However, I’m concerned that it may be too big to fit into an evening’s play time, so I may be forced to reconsider. We'll see.

1 comment:

Dug said...

The problem I had with the game was that it felt like with equal forces and the combat system you were in essence waiting to see who figured out where the enemy artillery wasn't, then the game was over.

Of course, this was a couple of years ago and I have to admit that I found the rules very frustrating to understand. The complexities of movement seemed doable, if a bit hard to track.