Thursday, June 12, 2008

So You Think You Can Marengo?

Mike and I met up this week to get a very distinctive game on the table: Bonaparte at Marengo. (BaM)

BaM was, when it came out, a unique game. Remember all those old battle maps you've seen in (pre 1980) books with greyscale line-drawn maps with red and blue lines all over showing the distribution of the troops? That's exactly what BaM looks like during play. In fact, it was designed to look that way first, then a simple set of rules were developed to make games work with what is called “the look.” Bowen Simmons (the designer and publisher) is very open about his designs, and in fact maintains design logs for his games. (Napoleon's Triumph is out now, and Guns of Gettysburg is coming.)

Another unusual feature of BaM (for wargames at least) is the utter and complete lack of dice or other randomizers. The only random aspect to the game is the initial French deployment. The game uses hidden information (think “block game”) for a level of uncertainty.

The BaM map is essentially a specialized area movement map. The areas are referred to as “locales” and each locale is separated from its neighbors by an “approach” to each adjacent locale. The approaches are where the terrain effects are brought into play as well. Troops can either be in “reserve” within a locale or “blocking” an approach to an enemy-occupied locale. On your turn, you get three command points with which to perform assaults (units blocking an approach attacking the units blocking the other side of the approach) perform maneuver attacks (attempting to move into an enemy-occupied locale in order to force a retreat or blocked approach) or move from one locale to another. Units in reserve can use road movement if roads move through their locale, and road movement over the primary roads does not count against your command points.

Road movement is the big tricky part in the game. A unit can move up to three locales while using road movement, but any particular approach can only handle three units crossing via road, they have to be sequenced properly, and must be moved individually. The way I picture it is to see the units being in column on the road, and three can make it across an approach in the hour a turn lasts, but none can cross an approach “simultaneous” to another – only one unit can make their first movement across a specific approach, one can make their second, one can make their third. So, if you're coming on from off map (as the Austrians must do with their entire force) one can go three locales, one must pause a move, then move two locales, and one must pause for two move, then move one locale.

Combat is a simple strength comparison. Leading units are chosen, terrain modifiers applied, and a comparison made. Higher total wins. Winner loses one step, loser loses one plus the difference and must retreat. (Losing attackers simply withdraw to reserve within their locale.)

There's only the main game, no scenarios, and victory is accomplished by causing the other army to break via attrition or by the Austrians claiming VP areas at the far end of the map by the end of the game. It plays in well under two hours. I'd played once before a couple years ago, but I think we completely botched the road movement rules in that game. In any case, it was long enough ago that anything I may have learned was completely forgotten since then.

We played a learning game where I had the Austrians, and then flipped sides for a 2nd game.

The learning game was valuable – it takes practice to learn how to manipulate units in reserve vs. blocking approaches and how to force retreat losses through maneuver attacks. Playing the game feels in many ways like playing chess. As both of us were struggling with technique, it's no surprise Mike won rather handily on defense with the French. It's far easier to defend when you don't know how a game really works. We swapped sides and tried again.

My deployment had most of my strength on my left flank – this was a problem as I had very little strength defending the primary road leading down the right edge of the map to half the VP spaces. I attempted to squeeze Mike's operating room by aggressively moving in on the far left. I'm not sure this is a good move, as it had the effect of funneling his attack down the center and to my right where I couldn't stop his breakthrough. It then became a race where I tried to get units over to slow his advance down long enough for my reinforcements to come on. And I had to do this without losing due to attrition.

With more experience, I may have been able to pull it off. As it was, I lost on attrition with either two or three turns left. I don't think I could have stopped Mike from getting VP spaces, either, but he was actually concentrating on the attrition victory. A big blunder of mine toward the end didn't help my cause either. (Maxim: if you're losing the attrition game, don't reopen a static front.) The final position in the south can be seen here.

Playing BaM is a rather unique gaming experience. It's sort of like chess, sort of like a block game, and has a very retro feel enhanced by the map. I'm sure Mike loved it as it has no dice to confound him. I think he was eager to try BaM as he owns Napoleon's Triumph (as do I), and was looking for BaM as a good introduction to the larger game. My brief research shows it may prove beneficial, but NT is different enough that the lessons learned in BaM may not all apply. Not a worry, though, as this game stands strong on its own. And it easily plays in 90 minutes.

I'd like to give this game a lot more time as I think the effort will be richly rewarded. Towards this end, I've joined the Bonaparte at Marengo ladder with the expectation I'll get my butt kicked for a while while I learn the game. The next round's matchups come out over the weekend, so I got in just in time.

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