I've owned this game for several months, but had never got to play it. Our regular Sunday group gives me many opportunities to play 4, 5 and 6-player games, and I'm truly grateful our Indy group has continued to grow. The one side affect though has been a severe decrease for any plays of 2-player games. However, Ross, a history major, had expressed interest in trying Bonaparte at Marengo. I was stuck at home this weekend after minor foot surgery and Ross's wife was busy on Saturday, so it was destined we give BaM a shot.
I played my first wargame, AH's Anzio, in 1970. Ross had primarily played Euros, so we came at this game from different backgrounds, but the unique nature of BaM left us both refering back to the rules with some frequency. My first read of the rules really was not too bad. And although I used to play a lot of wargames, I quickly surmised this was a game that was quite different from the old wargames, and the new Euros for that matter, I had played. I always find it intriguing when a designer comes up with some truly inventive mechanics, and Bowen Simmons has definitely done that.
We settled in with Ross taking the Austrians while I tried to duplicate Napoleon's historical success with the French.
First, this is a block game, but with a couple of differences to the block games publised by Columbia Games. The first thing that strikes you is the diminsions of the blocks. The blocks are 1.5" x 1/4" x 1/4". The rectangular shape really represents the linear formations that were used in the Napoleonic Wars. It usually takes a miniatures game to get this 'feel' for the period. Also, the step reductions are achieved by swapping out one block for another, as opposed to rotating the blocks.
You have three types of units in BaM; infantry, cavalry and artillery. Each side only has a single artillery unit. Seeing the effectiveness of the Austrian artillery, I could see why each side only had one artillery unit. Artillery gives you one of the few methods of inflicting damage on the opponent without taking damage yourself. As the French player I can say it was painful to have to wait until the 2nd group of reinforcements came on to get my artillery. Unfortunately, in this game that was a bit too late to help the French.
Cavalry has some advantages too. They can follow up a successful fight with a cavalry pursuit. Cavalry also has the capability to move and close with the enemy, something infantry cannot do. On the down side, cavalry cannot dislodge infantry in a town.
Now that we talked about the unit types, let's move onto the map. Much has been made about the 'feel' Simmons was going for with his map. He was highly successful in my opinion. He has completely eliminated the need for the usually present terrain effects chart that comes with most wargames. Locales that are occupied by troops indicate if attackers are at a disadvantage, and if the disadvantage applies to infantry, cavalry and/or artillery. Also, so terrain types completely block cavalry, as mentioned for towns earlier. But all of these affects are represented on the mapboard itself.
The other thing Simmons eliminated was the combat results table. The combat mechanics are quite unique in BaM. (Excuse me if I use the word 'unique' frequently in this report). Large groups of troops cannot just roll over a weaker defender. No matter how many troops are involved in the fight, each side must select the primary unit. Locales can be narrow or wide. A narrow front means there is a single primary attacker and defender. On a wide locale there can be two primary units. All locales cause attackng infantry to subtract one from their attack strength. Some locales also cause cavalry to be reduced by a point. In BaM, the Austrians will rarely win a melee outright. However, even the winner of a melee will suffer a step reduction, and with the Austrians greatly outnumbering the French, the Austrians can were down the French. Dispite the mechanism of choosing a primary unit(s) for a melee, there are a couple of advantages to including other units in the attack. First, if you win the assault, all units committed to the assault can move into the the locale that defenders retreated from. Second, if you have cavalry units committed and you win the assault, you get a second attack with your cavalry units in what the rules call a cavalry pursuit.
Being a smart player, Ross figured out a couple of strategies that were even more affective in utilizing the Austrian numerical supperiority. Several locales had multiple approaches. When the Austrians do a manuever assault into a locale, the French have the option of retreating or blocking the Austrians. Since the French need to slow up the Austrians whenever possible, I inevitably went for the block. However, if the Austrians can do more manuever assaults on a locale than there are French units in reserve, then the defenders are forced to retreat, and based on the retreat rules, some of the retreating units will take a step reduction. Along with artillery bombardments, this is the most effective way we discovered to force morale loss on the opponent without taking any reduction yourself. It is quite affective for the Austrians, as the French has to spread their lines pretty thin to to maintain a cohesive front to prevent an Austrian breakthrough.
The first few turns of our game went pretty quickly as the French only had three units activated and the Austrians need some time to funnel their troops onto the board. By turn two Ross was in position to do a couple of manuever assaults, forcing the French to block the approaches. Some assaults followed over the next two-three turns, with the French winning the individual melees, but losing all important strength points. The French only start with two size three units in the initial starting forces, and I was at least fortunate that one of the size 3 units was randomly placed on the front line. Still, attrition quickly whittled that unit down to a single strength point. The problem for Ross was he was taking more losses than me, so the Austrian morale was dropping quicker than the French. It was about this time, that Ross brought his artillery to bear, and the bombardments began. Thank goodness the artillery can only do a bombardment every other turn. The only positive thing about an artillery bombardment is the other units cannot assault into a location that has been bombarded.
Generally, the Austrians need some coordination to maximize the effectiveness of there offensive. I haven't mentioned the primary constraint in the game. A commander only gets three commands (orders) per turn. Units move on a primary road do not count against this thrr-command limit. This makes use of the primary roads critical and the French must block roads to the best of their ability, especially the primary roads. The 3-command limit forces the Austrians into some tough decisions. The Austrians will not be able to move and assault with the frequency they would like. It takes time to move their units into position to keep the pressure on the French. This is just another reason that using manuever to manuever assault into more approaches than the French can block is so critical. It gains the Austrians territory and inflicts damange (and morale loss) on the French without having to wait another turn to do an all out assault. Another thing the Austrians should watch for is the chance to assault a single French unit on a wide approach. As thin as the French line becomes as the game progresses, there will be times when the French are holding a local with a single unit. If there are wide approaches into that local, the Austrian will be able to assign two primary units to an assault, and will have an excellent opportunity to win the assault.
Time is the Austrians biggest opponent. The French are just hoping to slow down the Austrians enough to allow the French reinforcements to come on. The French need to defend the river line and hold Marengo for as long as possible. Defending the river line ensures the French will be assaulting at a minus 1, whether the primary attacker is cavalry or infantry.
Our game was tense all the way. As the French, I felt like I was hanging on by a fingernail the entire game. From the Austrian point of view the turns seems to fly by with the three-command limit only letting you do about half the things you would like to do during a turn. The French were successful to the extent the victory locations on the board remained in French hands. However, artillery and forced retreats had push the French morale lower than the Austrian morale. If one side becomes demoralized and the other side avoids becoming demoralized on the same turn, the game is effectively over. Only artillery can operate offensively for a demoralized army. With four turns left in our game the French were two points from becoming demoralized while the Austrians had 4 points to spare. It was apparent for a few turns prior to that that the French would become demoralized. The question was could the French take the Austrians with them. The French would then win on the tie breaker, which came down to control of certain locales at the west end of the board. Had the moment of truth come a couple of turns later, the French would have been able to bring their artillery to bear, but alas, it was not to be. Ross made two successful assaults, pushing the French into demoralization and leaving the Austrians with two moral points
The only chance for the French was to inflict two damage points on the Austrians during the French turn, thereby throwing both armies into demoralization. One locale had units face-to-face across the approaches, so I immediately assaulted there. The assault ended up a tie! Therefore, the Austrians won and only took a single step loss, leaving their morale at one. I did not have any other units in a blocking position that could assault. A unit with a single step left cannot assault if their strength would be reduced to zero by the terrain.
I had a couple of two-point cavalry units left, but they could do nothing more than a manuever assault, which would not result in an assault until the following turn.
So,the game came down to a single morale point three turns before the scheduled end turn. At that point the French were officially demoralized, which awared the Austrians five additional morale points and prevented the French from doing any further assaults.
The game took us about three hours, but half of that was reviewing rules and general chit chat. I can see replays easily coming in under two hours. With only three commands to give each turn, things move quickly. It will be interesting to see how our strategies evolve with more plays. It's not a game that flows smoothly on the first play, and I'm sure I missed some opportunities as the French. Still, I think it will be a rare case that the French would benefit from any type of couterattack on the Austrians.
I do think its a shame the French artillery comes on so late They did not get to fire a single shot in this game, and I don't see how the French artillery could ever get into the action for more than the last two-three turns of the game, unless the Austrians had broken through and were a closing in on the western end of the board.
Dispite some of our confustion with some of the rules, we both had great fun. There is a bit of a helpless feeling as the French, but it is certainly a challenge to seem if you can hang on and stop the hordes of Austrians pouring onto the board. I found it was a similar feel to playing the British in Victoria Cross or the Americans in the old '65 Bulge game.
It's been stated many times before, but this game really demands repeated plays. There's just no other games whose mechanics work like BaM, although Simmons should have a second game out at some point. If you are interested in BaM, check out www.simmonsgames.com. You can download the rules there and Simmons has some tutorial information on their site. I have to admit some trepidation as to no combat results chart. After all, there is a fair amount of uncertainty in warfare, and the underdogs do win at times. There is also no noticable advantage given to Napoleon to reflect his superior generalship. I could see something like giving the French 4 commands. But hey, why bother if all games come out as close as our first play. You can't argue with the critical acclaim and tense results BaM has produced.
Great job Mr. Simmons!
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Sounds like you had a good time. There are a couple of rules you missed, so I thought I'd point them out so you'll have them straight before your next session.
Thank goodness the artillery can only do a bombardment every other turn. The only positive thing about an artillery bombardment is the other units cannot assault into a location that has been bombarded.
This isn't true. Bombardments can be, and often are, followed up by assaults. You may be confusing it with the rule that states that if you capture an area by assault, you can't move any non-assaulting units in during the rest of your turn.
Ross made two successful assaults, pushing the French into demoralization and leaving the Austrians with two moral points
The only chance for the French was to inflict two damage points on the Austrians during the French turn, thereby throwing both armies into demoralization. One locale had units face-to-face across the approaches, so I immediately assaulted there.
Once the French morale track hit zero, they became demoralized and lost the ability to assault, so you couldn't make that attack.
The assault ended up a tie!
This makes me wonder if you also noticed the fact that demoralized units have a one strength point per piece penalty. This of course only would apply defensively, because as I said demoralized units cannot assault.
Other than under extraordinary circumstances, demoralization marks the end of the game. It is possible, as you note, for the French to bombard and/or maneuver attack immediately after becoming demoralized, and in a close game this could result in the Austrians also becoming demoralized. This would be critical because if either or both become demoralized, territorial possession determines the winner.