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Posted on Jul 19, 2005 in Boardgames

Bonaparte at Marengo – Boardgame Review

By Peter Bogdasarian

boxart.jpgSummary

This is an interestingly designed boardgame from Simmons Games where the aim is for players to outmaneuver the enemy using some novel mechanics for attack and defense. The game itself is finely-balanced while being easy to play, yet a challenge to play well.

What the Publisher Has to Say

On 14 June 1800, the French army under Napoleon Bonaparte was taken by surprise and attacked by the Austrian army under General Melas. Outnumbered and outgunned, the French were defeated and forced to retreat. But later that same day, French reinforcements arrived under General Desaix, and in what amounted to a second battle the French counter-attacked and won, taking thousands of prisoners and driving the Austrians from the field.

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Thus was won the battle of which Napoleon was always the most proud – Marengo.

Introduction

Bonaparte at Marengo begins with an unusual situation for a battle game. The Austrians possess the advantages of surprise and numbers, but their army is stuck behind a river and only a small portion can use the available crossings each turn. Meanwhile, the French are unaware of the approaching enemy, and their forces are only gradually able to "wake up" and respond to the attack.

Once the Austrians are on the map, they must either demoralize the French in battle or seize a number of geographic locations on the far side of the board for the win. The French, meanwhile, can win by either demoralizing the Austrians by offensive action, or by denying them their objectives through a more passive strategy.

counters.jpg

The Components

The "look" of the game is the first thing you experience when you take it out of the box – it is intended to have the look and feel of contemporary battle maps (think of something from a West Point military atlas). The units are represented by wooden blocks (which are longer and thinner than those found in the block games from Columbia or Worthington), and represent infantry, cavalry or artillery in varying strengths. Unlike some Napoleonic games, Bonaparte at Marengo does not concern itself with the pageantry of the period – while stronger units may be considered to have better morale and aggressiveness, the game does not go out of its way to identify those units through fancy uniforms or distinct symbology.

The map itself is hard-mounted and is divided into a number of areas. In a change from the industry standard, the effects of terrain are incorporated right into the physical design – how many units an area can hold is printed right inside it, and the defensive benefits of terrain are indicated on the "approaches" which connect one area to another. (The Eagles of the Empire series from Avalanche Press does something similar to this). The approaches are a particularly interesting feature because they represent locations within an area – units can either be "in reserve" in the center or deployed to "blocking" one approach. Most of the areas give players enough room so that clutter is not a problem, though some minor congestion can occur in built up regions such as Marengo.

map1.jpg
This small segment of the map shows the unique layout and most notably
highlights the lack of hexes.

The game succeeds in its physical components in several respects. First, the overall quality is quite good, both in the map and units. Aware of the disasters that can befall a product released into the world, Simmons Games even went so far as to provide a few extra pieces to replace any losses. Second, a great deal of game information is swiftly and effectively conveyed through the map itself. Things that would make their way onto charts in other games (setup information, reinforcements, terrain and game tracks for time and morale) are printed right onto the map board here, cutting down on the amount of cross-referencing and paper shuffling that takes place during play. Finally, the game succeeds in achieving the "look" I discussed above, which produces a certain aesthetic satisfaction in setting it up and watching the game unfold.

Learning the Game

The rulebook for Bonaparte at Marengo is well-written – most questions can be answered by a careful read. The living rules (available on the publisher’s website) have been tweaked for comprehension but the game can easily be played with the version in the box.

learning.jpg
Taken from the Simmons website, this excellent diagram (and many others like it) help
new players get familiarized with the game mechanics.

However, what is not communicated by a casual read is how the game plays. Bowen Simmons has put together a set of mechanics that are out-and-out novel. As a result, a stroll through the rules will not necessarily inform a player how best to use these ideas to defeat his opponent. Players will go through a more organic process, where playing the game the first few times will also involve the exploration of some of the subtleties of the system.

The Game in Play

Each turn a player may issue three commands, either to individual units or to groups of troops located in the same geographic area. In addition, units located on primary roads may be moved for free (cavalry can even make a form of attack down such lanes). In play, the roads become crucial to controlling the flow of the game – they represent both lanes of advance and the only means by which units may move more than one area in a game turn.

The most important form of attack in Bonaparte at Marengo is the "maneuver attack". In a maneuver attack, a player’s troops attempt to enter an area occupied by his opponent’s forces. The opposing player ordinarily then has the choice of retreating or choosing to block the attack. The latter option requires him to station his forces on what is called an "approach," indicating that they are confronting the enemy and, in turn, may be assaulted. Units on an approach are also more vulnerable when forced to retreat, so there are risks involved in committing them to meet an attack.

But there exists another wrinkle to this process. If a player begins his maneuver attack with his troops already stationed on an unblocked approach – or his opponent’s forces are tied up blocking other approaches – then his attack will automatically cause a retreat. The importance of this is best explained by a quick detour back to the victory conditions.

A player loses morale points when he takes losses – and when his reservoir of morale points run out, his troops become demoralized, which will typically mean the end of the game. Losses come from three causes – bombardment by artillery, assaults and retreats. Since assaults are quite difficult to pull off and will ordinarily mean heavy casualties for an attacker (and always casualties for both sides), players must look to other methods to get ahead of the attrition curve.

But, as seen above, maneuver attacks are generally easy to defeat with well positioned units. In play then, the mechanic establishes a pattern of threat and counter-threat, where players constantly seek to get the advantage, either by establishing attacks that cannot be blocked or by forcing the other player into reacting to their moves rather than setting up attacks of his own. The closest analogy I can think of is chess, where players strive as much for the "initiative" in decision making as the results on the table.

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