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Posted on Sep 30, 2008 in Boardgames

Jena 20 – Boardgame Review

By Larry Levandowski

Combat is fought with an incremental combat results table, rather than the odds-based CRT found in most wargames. A unit with four points attacking a three-point unit is +1, for example. Terrain, use of guard units, cavalry charges, and committing reserves all affect whether the increment is +1, +2, etc. This means that, as in the historic battle, a player doesn’t need twice as many troops to win, just more troops and/or better tactics.

Combat results tend to emphasize retreat and follow-up rather than unit destruction. Low advantage attacks are relatively low risk, usually resulting in withdraw or retreat. Even when units are broken and removed from play, they still have a chance to rally and return during night turns. Game flow is one of constant engagement, with shifting lines rather than sudden destruction.

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At Jena, the flow of the battle is dominated by the Saale River. Crossing points are few, and the French player must push the Prussians hard or face a disastrous retreat back across the river. At Auerstadt, the French will be lucky to have more than one unit. How well Davout performs is dictated more by how many troops the Prussian player throws against him than by any French maneuver.

Jena 20 has some features that keep the game flow fresh during replay. Key among these is a small but potent deck of random event cards which represent historic events and plausible what-ifs. For example, in the historic battle of Auerstadt, Bernadotte’s I Corps failed to come to the rescue of Davout’s III Corps. In the game, however, if you pull the right card the Emperor’s swift boot puts new steel into Bernadotte.

For those players who can’t find an opponent, Jena is pretty good as a solitaire game. Random events and variable unit entry keep the lone player on his toes. But Jena does much better as a two-player game with an optional hidden units rule. A creative Prussian player, using hidden movement and dummy counters, can really throw the French attack plan off balance.

If there is any issue with the game, it comes from the fact that by optimizing the rules for fast play and low unit count, some of the nuances of the historic battle are lost. For example, the 1,000-meter hexes, don’t do justice to the very hilly terrain and narrow draws that molded the flow of combat around Jena. Also, while the combat results table does not often yield traumatic results, a few lucky die rolls can cause entire corps to disappear; with so few units on the field, a couple of bad die rolls early in the game would doom French chances. 

Along with World War II and the American Civil War, Napoleonics inspire one of the most popular periods for wargames. As such, the Battles of Jena/Auerstadt have been the subjects of several board and computer games over the years. But Jena 20 fills a new niche. Victory Point Games has given us a fast playing, fun depiction of Jena and Auerstadt. The game is probably not for the grognard who has a voracious appetite for detail. For the rest of us, however, there’s always room in the baggage train for a great portable game to take on campaign. 

Larry Levandowski has been a wargamer for more than 30 years, and started computer gaming back in the days of the C-64. Until he recently discovered the virtues of DOS box, much of his computer game collection was unplayable. A former U.S. Army officer, Larry has done his share of sitting in foxholes. Since leaving the Army, he has worked in the Information Technology field, as a programmer, project manager and lead bottle washer. He now spends his spare time playing boardgames, Napoleonic and WWII miniatures, as well as any PC game he can get his hands on.

2 Comments

  1. There are other games in this, the Napoleonic 20 series. If you have any questions that you’d like to ask the designer, you can reach me at: alanemrich@victoypointgames.com.

    Alan Emrich

  2. The reviewer seemed to really know his stuff, both regarding great game mechanics and history. This is the type of balanced and fair reviews we haven’t seen since the days of Computer Gaming World in its heydey.

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