Borodino – Boardgame Review
In early December of 1812, a wretched, starving group of soldiers tripped across the Prussian frontier to the relative safety of the "civilized" western world. Survivors of one of the most devastating fighting retreats in history, these few thousand men were all that remained of what was once Napoleon’s proud Grande Armee of several hundred thousand. It is hardly conceivable that only three months prior, they were amassed for open battle against an opposing Russian army at Borodino, supposedly with the fate of Mother Russia hanging in the balance. Victory or defeat would determine if the French would control Moscow, and knock Russia out of the war. At least that is what the French believed…
The battle was planned after a series of long retreats across Russia designed to lure the French deeper into the lion’s den. General Prince Mikhayl Kutuzov picked the nondescript village of Borodino to finally put up a strong defensive fight against the invading French. He picked favorable defensive terrain, and reinforced the area by building a series of redoubts. He was ready to meet Napoleon on his own terms…
On the French side, Napoleon had just crossed the vastness of Russia over hostile terrain – and his army was worn down from the journey (both sides met with roughly equal forces of about 125,000 men, and 5-600 cannons). Yet, as the ever-confident Napoleon sized up the battlefield, he was sure that one blunt frontal attack would destroy the Russian Army for good. Was his plan the correct one? Some suggest he should have heeded a subordinate’s request for a proposed flanking maneuver, but Napoleon didn’t want to weaken his main assault and the terrain was considered poor for such a maneuver (based on French intelligence). This game gives you an interesting option designed to let you explore that proposed maneuver…but otherwise this huge Napoleonic battle is literally a head-on, full-throttle fight to the death.
Borodino, Battle of Moskova, 1812 (GMT Games), allows the players to recreate this major clash between Napoleon and the Russians in front of Moscow in 1812. The scenario takes place over the course of one day (September 7), and is broken down into twelve 75-minute turns. Each turn gives ample time for each side to assign orders to the various commands, fire cannons, move units, attack (close range musket volleys), conduct cavalry charges, and attempt to rally broken units. The stacking and ZOC rules are simple and straightforward, as are the Line of Sight rules for artillery units. Almost all relevant information is on a single player aid card which cuts down on the need to constantly refer back to the rule book.
One hallmark of GMT’s Gameplayers’ Series (of which Borodino is a part) is that both sides have their command structure broken down into individual Activation Groups (usually a Corps), which move and fight as smaller groups of sub-units. Each of these formations are activated by the commander in a random sequence during a turn, introducing an element of chance to the movement/firing sequences. The side with initiative gets to choose one Activation Group (AG) which will move first, making the effects of positive and negative initiative for each side quite important. One turn your best troops could be pushing ahead at break-neck pace, only to lose the initiative and suddenly find themselves hung out to dry as the enemy gets first move and unleashes all his cannons in one blaze of fury at your charging infantry. The combination of sub-units and initiative rolls makes this game great for solo play by adding random sequences that can’t be predicted or anticipated even if you are playing both sides at once. This also makes the turns go a bit faster, as you don’t have to tediously keep track of which Russians you’ve moved, followed by keeping track of which French you’ve moved all over the map. You can break it down into smaller chunks and move only small groups of units so you never forget what you are doing, no matter how long it takes you to come back to your game.
Victory is an interesting aspect of this game, and for this "Panzer-pusher" I found this victory method to be a new concept for me. Rather than maneuvering to capture territory or victory locations, the goal of this game is literally to be the last man (army) standing when the smoke clears. That is no small task when considering the relative size of each force. However, once again the Activation Groups are used to expedite this, and by sending attacks against a particular enemy AG, you increase the chance of inflicting a "final blow" which knocks that AG out of the game and turns its constituent units into an undisciplined mob. If you destroy your enemy’s AGs before he can destroy yours, you win. The Russians have a more disorganized command structure, and thus more groups which can be destroyed. The French, with their better command and control, have fewer groups, but the destruction of only a couple could unravel the entire French attack. The possibilities are endless on how each side should pursue victory.
The map comes on a 22×34 folded map sheet, which lies out nicely and is also quite attractive. There is plenty of information on the map such as your Activation Group boxes (for orders and collapse), withdrawn, recovering and eliminated unit boxes, terrain description key, and of course a turn track. The unit counters are all very colorful and complement the map perfectly…making it very easy to see the counters, and see which AGs are at your command and which ones you must destroy. This makes organization and housekeeping remarkably easy, and thus fast. This helps the overall game proceed at a pretty good pace. The medium size map board makes it easy to set on something firm (I had mine on top of a picture frame) which can be moved from table to storage and back with no problems. This somewhat alleviates the problems many of us have finding a place to spread out a map board.
The game uses the Triumph and Glory (2.2) rule set, which means if you own other games in this expanding series, this one will be easy to pick up. There are a few pages of special conditions designed to enhance the unique features of the Russians, the exhausted French, and this particular battlefield. The rules in general were simple enough to get me started almost immediately, and there is a smaller scenario that compliments the main event, so you can brush up on your fundamentals before plunging into the full campaign. The GMT website has links for support, and I found any questions I had about the game were answered by the designer almost immediately. This game can also be played via PBEM using GMT’s Aide-de-Camp program. Thus, finding opponents is no longer a chore!
The only minor thing I could dig up was a personal wish to see another small scenario or two included with the game. It would give the player a chance to build up to the main event and practice using this game system. However, the one additional scenario included (Attack on the Schevardino Redoubt) was valuable in the train-up to play, and I was able to complete one full campaign game over the course of several nights, playing for a couple hours per night at most. Most players will probably find this more than manageable once they have a good grasp of the rules.
There is little to dislike about this title by GMT Games, and I believe that Napoleonic fans will find this game worth their time. Students of blunt frontal attacks will be challenged trying to capture decisive victory as either side, and adherents of finesse will be enticed to try the flanking maneuver to end the battle more favorably for the French. The excellent counter art combined with the attractively unobtrusive map will make this game as easy on the eyes as it is fun to play. While there is a mild learning curve getting up to speed on this game system, you will automatically be ready to play other Triumph and Glory games, making this product an excellent all around value.
With any luck, you too will be in Moscow by winter!
Brian King is the website editor for Armchair General Magazine, and dabbles in board gaming, PC wargaming at the operational level, and has written several book, movie and game reviews for the Armchair General website. When not in front of a computer screen, he enjoys mountain biking, jeeping, and hiking in the Colorado wilderness.