Friday 1 December 2023

Stolberg's Death Ride: pivotal moments in wargames

This reflection is prompted by last week's Franco-Prussian War game of the battle of Loigny/Poupry (1870). Rather than picking out various aspects of the game to reflect on, this time I've picked out just one to discuss in a little more (slightly rambling and disjointed) depth: the 'pivotal moment'. I'll give a brief summary of the game, then get to my point.

Loigny/Poupry was one of the first major battles of the Republican phase of the war, after the fall of Napoleon III. The French Army of the Loire was therefore a mixture of regular troops (depot battalions or units such as the Foreign Legion, freshly arrived from Africa) and masses of newly-mustered, relatively poorly-trained and -armed gardes mobiles. It faced a German army that was by now battle-hardened and had honed its skirmish tactics. The Loire campaign was directed at breaking the German siege of Paris. This battle saw the Army of the Loire hitting a Bavarian covering force that was then rescued by other German contingents. Consequently it makes for a nice open game where both sides are bringing forces onto the table and have to manoeuvre in their respective efforts to break or hold the line.

Nine captioned photos below the map tell the tale of the game, followed by reflections at the end if you want to jump straight to those.

The scenario map. (Loigny is one of the nine Franco-Prussian battles in the linked campaign in the BBB rulebook.) It's a pretty open battlefield, dotted with villages, three of which (Poupry, Lumeau and Loigny) are the objective locations. One big wood behind Poupry. Bavarians start on table in the lower half. French 16 Cps (Chanzy) arrives first from lower right. German reinforcements will arrive from top left at start of Day 2 (Turn 4), followed by French 15 Cps from top right T5, then 17 Cps in the centre T8/9.

The map as translated into a lovely snowy battlemat by Crispin. The wintry orange woods set it off beautifully. View looking north, French approaching from bottom edge. White counters mark the three victory locations. One Bavarian brigade in Guillonville (bottom left) to act as a tripwire; a second holds Loigny on the ridge; a third plus cavalry are behind that; the fourth follows on T2.

Close-up of the Bavarians holding Loigny. 6mm figures by Baccus.
The windmills are a nice historical touch.

View from Loigny as Chanzy's troops screen off and bypass Guillonville.

French Turn 4 (first move on the second day). Chanzy's corps has developed its line nicely towards the central objective, Lumeau (lefthand edge of pic) which is held only by Bavarian cavalry. Poor Bavarian movement rolls meant the infantry were just a little too slow so they will get caught in the open instead of being able to defend the village. French artillery is rumbling up to form a gun line to dominate the centre of the battlefield. 

I was commanding the German left. (John had the Bavarians; Dave and Crispin were French.) My lads were also stymied by lame movement dice, so the French would steal a march on us and get into Poupry first as well. Note the little cluster of cavalry just this side of the big Poupry wood upper left. This is Count Stolberg's 2nd Cavalry Division. The French infantry nearest to it, top centre, is about to leap into Lumeau (the white counter to their right), leaving their guns unescorted.

This was a pivotal moment in the battle - as in, if the dice had gone differently, it would have significantly changed the course of the game. Seeing the ominous French gun line still in the process of forming up, with half its batteries still limbered and the others already low on ammo from pounding the Bavarians, I gambled and launched Stolberg's cavalry at the few guns already deployed. There was about 40% chance that they would charge home; if they did, they would probably chase off or wipe out much of the French artillery. As this picture shows, though, French fire repelled them with the loss of one of their three bases. French cavalry then finished them off.

Meanwhile, my infantry used the cover of the wood to press into deadly needlegun range of Poupry, The garde mobile had got in there ahead of us but a few casualties soon rendered them spent (blue counter). 

However, reaching the front edge of the wood, we were in a 'fire sack'. The orange counter shows that these troops in Artenay on the French extreme right are chassepot-armed regiments de marche. Behind them, the Foreign Legion contributes its firepower. French artillery are out of pic to the right, including some mitrailleuses that would take a toll. On the penultimate turn, I finally managed to eject and wipe out the garde mobile, then repel a French countercharge on the last turn. However, French fire had cost me nearly half of my infantry. Still, at least we held that objective at the end.

The centre was bitterly contested. My fourth brigade made three decent attempts to storm Lumeau. Had Stolberg's Death Ride succeeded, the defending fire would have been less and we might well have got in. As it was, De Sonis's 17 Corps raced up, led here by the Papal Zouaves (OK, the figures are just ordinary zouaves standing in) and took over the defence of Lumeau just in time to save it for the French. Meanwhile, Chanzy's fire had depleted the Bavarians enough for him to storm Loigny. Final score: Germans held only 1 of the 3 objectives, so it was a glorious victory for the French!


Pivotal moments: Sometimes, games are virtually decided at the start, when the two sides' deployments dictate how it will go (perhaps through one side's irretrievable error). Others are only decided at the end: a case of general ebb and flow, push and shove, where neither side is really on top until the last couple of turns, and maybe it comes down to the last few dice on the last few assaults. And then there is a third kind where some pivotal moment mid-battle seems in retrospect to be the one the whole thing hinged on. I think this Loigny game was one of these. As I described above, Stolberg's charge had a fair chance of succeeding; if it had, we Germans could reasonably have expected to draw and would have had a chance of a win.

Looking back over a few earlier reports, I see some others that we could put in that same category. A German victory at Spicheren owed much to a grand battery and a particularly deadly salvo of artillery fire mid-game (albeit the scenario was probably skewed towards a German win anyway). Oudenarde was a case where my audacious sally onto an enemy flank deserved better results than it got, so let's call that a pivotal moment. At Waterloo, the Allied heavy cavalry's charge turned the game. 

By contrast: my defeat at Tel-el-Kebir was due to my early indecision rather than any critical moment later, so let's say that one was decided at the start. Likewise Malplaquet was determined more by our deployment than by our dice; ditto Beaumont; similarly Dybbøl, where we were always playing catch-up after being distracted on the first couple of turns.

As an example of the second type, where the battle is more evenly poised, ebb and flow and in doubt throughout, let me offer Tudela or Borodino.

These are three different kinds of story, each enjoyable in their own way. Those that are nip and tuck all the way and go down to the wire are probably best in terms of overall tension and excitement. However, there is a special pleasure to be had from the games where you can look back and say "that was the moment everything hinged on - if only it had gone differently!" That pivotal moment, the critical scene in the movie that changes the situation dramatically, after which everything else is just tying up the loose ends ...

There is also pleasure at the time in the high-stakes gamble. Launching Stolberg in this Loigny game, or sallying from Eyne in the Oudenarde battle, I knew at the time that it was risky and would cost me if it went wrong (as it did in both cases). Still, I think Clausewitz would approve, as he prefers a gambler to the general who is paralysed by doubt. And at least I was only sacrificing little lead soldiers. Anyway, it's more exciting than sitting tight and hoping for the best! 

Update 3 Dec 2023: the original reflection was a little brief as I was pressed for time. Here's some more of what I wanted to say about this, as expounded in a nice discussion on the Lead Adventure Forum:

I think the pivotal moment really has to be a high-stakes decision. (Me citing an artillery bombardment rolling a 12 was a bit of a cheat.)

'Decided at deployment': well, it's not really so black and white, you're rarely necessarily doomed. It's more a case of poor early decisions skewing the odds against you for the rest of the game.

To offer an analogy, imagine a battle as being like a long-term illness, where the disease is the enemy.
'Decided at Deployment' might be the fact that you became a chain-smoker at the age of 12, making it harder to fight the disease for the rest of your life and likely it will kill you.
'Ebb and Flow' would be just trying to manage it with diet, exercise and medication, to more or less effect - maybe ending in a draw (live to a decent age, albeit quality of life a bit diminished).
'Pivotal Moment' - that's the decision to go under the knife for that kill-or-cure operation.

Safety professionals use a 'bowtie diagram'
in which multiple possible Mechanisms can lead to a single critical Event that can then have multiple Outcomes. Our situation is similar except that the Event (the Pivotal Moment) generally won't result from one Mechanism but from the cumulative effects of several contributing circumstances (activation failures, an exposed flank, a battery's fire slackening from low ammo ...). It then has multiple ramifications, more so than a lower-risk decision elsewhere that does not change the situation so dramatically.

A full list of my 'Reflections on Wargaming' essays can be found here.


  1. This is a great post, and one of the advantages of BBB in my opinion is that it generates such pivotal moments.

    1. Thanks, Konstantinos. I like to think of the 8 or 10 turns of a typical BBB game as being like chapters in a book. The rules play swiftly enough and the move distances are large enough and combat decisive enough that each turn is different, each chapter is different. That does indeed generate big decisions and pivotal moments.

  2. A fine post Chris and you some up how games can play out rather succinctly. One of the joys of the post-game chats, should time allow, is to reflect upon what happened, where both sides thought the game was won and lost etc. With the BBB scenarios, you can often reflect upon the historical out comes too and what might have changed them had one side done 'X' or the other side 'Y' etc.

    Chatting with my friend who had studied the invasion of Crete when at staff college, they pin pointed the turning point where the Germans won the battle, or at least from where they went on to win and there was little the Allies could do. It was a surprisingly small action IIRC but one that had big consequences.

    1. Cheers, Steve. Indeed - my buddy Scott likes to point to one PIAT round that knocked out the first Pz IV to try to retake Pegasus Bridge as a pivotal moment.

  3. I agree that the 'Decided At Deployment' isn't the end of it all (unless playing certain GW games, as a friend pointed out to me once!), but it certainly makes harder for the rest of the game. A case in point being the sighting of your artillery in SYW games, due to their relative immobility for that period, whether attacking or defending. You really have to think hard about this, so as not to mask you guns, which is easier said than done, based upon bitter experience! Of course this applies to other periods too, but it is more stark in this period IMHO.

    1. Absolutely agree, Steve. In my blog reports of our Marlburian games, I commented on how important it is in these earlier periods to anticipate several moves ahead and have your troops pointing in the right direction. In fact, our good friend Clausewitz says that pre-Napoleonic linear armies had such limited ability to manoeuvre that all a general could do after he had deployed was hope that his men were braver than the other side's. Things changed a bit in the 1790s. (Contrary to a UK A-Level curriculum for, I think, War & Society 1750-1900 that I believe maintained 'nothing much changed in warfare between 1750 and 1850'.)


Comments welcome!