Monday 24 September 2018

Napoleon's 1796 Italian Campaign (Clausewitz) - it's published!

I am delighted to report that our annotated translation of Clausewitz's history of Napoleon's famous first campaign is now published.

University Press of Kansas catalog entry here.

Available from Amazon here.

My previous blog post about the work here.

We are honored and grateful that several eminent historians have written such positive endorsements of the work (though of course, the late General von Clausewitz deserves most of the credit).

I do however take some pride in noting that we delivered the manuscript in good order and in such good time that the book has been published ahead of the originally planned October release date.

I also managed to complete the set of operational-level wargame scenarios that accompanies the book, albeit the last few are not yet playtested. These can all be found in the files of the BBB Yahoo group.

Monday 17 September 2018

A nuanced slugfest? Borodino

BBB was created to make it practical to wargame the largest battles of the nineteenth century. My original focus was the latter half of the century - Franco-Prussian War, Austro-Prussian War, Russo-Turkish War etc - but of course the rules work for the Napoleonic era as well. We've already fought Waterloo and Leipzig, and some smaller Napoleonic actions. One of the team, Mark, wants to work our way through all the largest battles of the 1st Empire.

Last week he therefore unveiled his first draft of a scenario for that classic monster: Borodino. Now I'll admit I'm no expert on this battle, but I had a fair idea that it was mostly a frontal assault in which the French had to storm a Grand Redoubt and some Fleches. I was therefore apprehensive about the game and feared it might be a sustained slog with little scope for creative maneuver.

 Panorama looking north along the Russian defensive line

Well, I was right and also wrong. I got allocated to the Russian side in the role of Bagration and charged with defending the earthworks. Suddenly, examining the ominous force ratio and the weakness of my flank in the woods around Utitsa, and the feeble quality of my militia reserves, the French task looked rather easier than mine.

I mention troop quality. Especially by this late in the Napoleonic period there is a degree of sameness about the armies as everyone is using broadly similar weapons and tactics. Column, line, square; infantry, cavalry, artillery. For some gamers this has a special purity and beauty; it strikes others as limited and dull. But of course within those categories there are gradations that add subtlety. Some troops are better at skirmishing; others better in the assault; some can endure hard pounding, others are brittle and crack easily; some commanders are bold and dynamic, others, well ... not.

So it was with our Russian and French armies. Our French opponents had swarms of tirailleurs, while we had only a few jaegers. On the other hand our line troops were determined and loved the bayonet. Napoleon's Polish troops matched ours for aggression. He was also well endowed with heavy cavalry who were a more potent shock weapon than most of ours, and our militia were not only raw and fragile, many of them did not even have muskets but were armed only with pikes.

Consequently, while the scope for grand manoeuvre was fairly limited, with troops lined up almost from table edge to table edge right from the start, at the tactical level there was plenty of thought required to make best use of each unit's qualities. Let's put jaegers in front to screen the line troops and to fight in the woods. Tough line units can hold the redoubt and the fleches, and also stand ready for immediate local counterattacks. Larger scale counterattacks? Best use my cavalry for that. What about the milita? Well they may be rubbish, but there's a lot of them and they might look daunting ... let's post some on the flank and others behind a threatened sector, where they can deter the enemy without too much risk of actually getting into a fight.

This latter tactic worked out well. My opponent's best troops, his Poles, stormed Utitsa on Turn 1. However, after that, perhaps discouraged by the swarm of useless militia and cossacks in the woods in front of them, he was content to waste them garrisoning the village and its hill. Meanwhile he committed his regular troops to repeated assaults across a stream, up a hill and against the front of the Fleches. Unsurprisingly, and with the help of some judicious vigorous local counterattacks, these were repelled every time.

However, attrition eventually created gaps either side of the Grand Redoubt that we could not fill in time. An impressive number of French cavalry poured through on either side and swarmed over it in combination with another frontal assault by the infantry. The Redoubt was overrun. The Russian Guards moved up behind it in time to stitch a line together, and were bracing themselves to retake it; but by now the French Imperial Guard were on the move to exploit the breach.

We ran out of time with a couple of moves still to play (a rare event with BBB, but then it was a first playtest of an ambitiously large scenario). Despite the limited room to manoeuvre, it was a thoroughly absorbing contest, one which you might characterise as a kind of nuanced slugfest: an enjoyable game which did feel like two titans slugging it out, but where we still had enough interesting tactical choices to make.

Mark is revising the scenario in the wake of our playtest to make it even better: reorienting the game map to provide some space on the flanks, and adjusting the orbat so that there are fewer units to handle, which should speed up the game to fit the usual BBB 3-hour window.