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Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Napoleon's 1796 campaign begins!

I am more than halfway through creating a set of ultimately about 10 scenarios for Napoleon's 1796-1797 campaign in Italy and Austria. The purpose of these is to complement my translation of Clausewitz's history of the campaign, scheduled for publication by the University of Kansas Press later this year.

The scenarios are operational-level, typically covering about a week of fighting, with a 6'x4' table representing many miles of map. The games are deliberately designed to be stripped-down, quick and simple to play: schematic terrain, simplified rules, a relatively small number of rationalized standard units, as far as possible.

The Corlears Hook Fencibles have already given an outing to the first scenario, Dego 1796, and played it twice in one sitting. Last night was my turn at OWS and we likewise got through it twice in 3 hours including set-up and take-down.

Map-view of Napoleon's axis of advance towards the Austrian base at Acqui.
Serurier's and Massena's divisions in the foreground poised to march onto the table.
2mm figures by Irregular Miniatures, sporting the correct diamond-pattern flags!

The fact that we completed two games so swiftly shows that the quick-and-simple aim has been achieved. In taking the stripped-down approach, I knew there was a risk of babies going out with bathwater. In particular I was worried that dispensing with formation changes might turn units into counters and a miniatures wargame into a boardgame, thereby losing too much tactical flavour for players' tastes. The players did indeed comment that it felt a little more like a boardgame. (I'd dug out my 2mm scale armies for it, for the first time in nearly a decade, which no doubt added to the boardgame effect.)

However, they also said it was great fun. It did seem to free commanders up from fiddly detail to take an operational-level view and make operational-level decisions. The games moved very swiftly and the situation changed rapidly from turn to turn, forcing major new decisions frequently. They gave the right feel of dynamic French maneuver to try to get local superiority, against a more ponderous foe who had equal numbers and was mostly in advantageous defensive positions.

In our two battles, the French followed very different plans and the games turned out very differently. The first saw a bold thrust through the thin Austrian cordon straight for the Austrian base at Acqui. This was thwarted; various lesser objectives elsewhere on the pitch changed hands, and the French captured enough to get away with a draw.

Game 2 looked much worse for the French. Pushing our weight along the main road through Altare with a view to taking Dego, we were stymied by dismal movement rolls, despite the presence of Napoleon himself. Apparently an entire division was straggling and foraging rather than marching and fighting ... Emboldened Sardinians reinforced Millesimo on our left, while Beaulieu bludgeoned singlemindedly down the coast road on our right.

Turning a threat into an opportunity, we concentrated almost everything against the neck that the Sardinians had stuck out. It wasn't easy - bad rolls, difficult terrain, and some Austrian flank attacks slowed us down. Our own line of communications at Savona fell to Beaulieu! Time was running out and all seemed lost. But with a turn to go, Augereau and Massena at last managed to coordinate a successful assault. One Sardinian brigade was despatched; the French exploited into a second and routed that also. This left three French brigades poised to assault the last Sardinians in Ceva on the last turn. This time the French dice did not let them down, Ceva was taken, and with it, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat!

Historically, of course, Napoleon defeated the Austrians first, around Montenotte and Dego. It was not until the second week of the campaign that he turned his full force upon the Sardinians, defeating them at Mondovi. Our French win was uncannily like the week of Mondovi: Colli's outnumbered Sardinians conducting a fighting withdrawal through successive defensive lines, inflicting some bloody repulses on the French, but being routed when they didn't quite time their last withdrawal right.

Thus after four playtests of Dego we have one French win, one Allied win, and two draws. The scenario is clearly pretty well balanced, and capable of generating games of very different shapes. It has also given us a successful proof of concept that the stripped-down, operational-level approach provides a game that is both good fun and reasonably faithful to the history, and that aids understanding of how and why the historical events happened as they did. I look forward to fighting more of the 1796 campaign soon.

The Dego scenario is in the BBB Yahoo group files.