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Bonaparte at Marengo Design Notes

The genesis of Bonaparte at Marengo is in battle maps drawn in the nineteenth century. The most distinctive aspect of their appearance is the way the armies were rendered, as strikingly geometrical long straight lines, one army in red the other in blue. This appearance is what I came to call “The Look”.

Conventional wargames, with square pieces of cardboard on hexagonal grids, never capture The Look – they have plenty of geometry but it is not the geometry of linear warfare but the geometry of hexagons, dominated by the direction of the grain of the hex grid.

Ironically, early wargames, the nineteenth century German Kriegspiel, physically were quite close to The Look: they used rectangular wooden blocks on a gridless map. The Look is not something that wargames never had, but something they had and lost. If I was to succeed, it would be by at least a partial return to these roots.

Of course, it can be asked why a fuss is being made about The Look anyway – isn’t what matters how much fun the game is to play, or how accurate it is historically?

I think, however, that these things are bound together. How much fun a game is, how accurate it is, and how it looks are all grounded in the game as time machine. The best games transport the player from the time and place in which he lives into the time and place the game represents, and people respond so strongly to visual cues that if you give them the right ones the job is half done, and if you give them the wrong ones you may never succeed no matter what else you do right.

So, the quest for The Look led to the idea of using the rectangular blocks of the Kriegspiel. However, the gridless representation of the battlefield, which the Kriegspiel shared with modern miniatures, carried with it grave problems – in such systems, typically there are huge differences between almost identical distances like 15/16 of an inch and 17/16 of an inch, resulting in a fussiness that is very dislocating to the sense of period – no Napoleonic commander ever worried about whether the enemy was 99 yards away or 101 yards away.

But if the map wasn’t to be gridless and wasn’t to be a hex grid, what would it be? The only alternative systems I knew of were point-to-point systems and area systems (actually the two are different graphical representations of functionally the same thing). Area systems have been used for many years, but while they have been used with great success in large-scale games, the few games using them for small-scale battles were not as successful and tended to have even less of a linear 19th century period feel than hex-based games.

Searching for an alternative I came upon the idea of a point-to-point variant: instead of the pieces being positioned on the points, they would be positioned on the connections around the points. When I began to work with this idea graphically, it quickly became apparent that the area representation worked much better than the point representation, and with that realization, the game’s physical design was locked in: The map would consist of polygons with rectangular block pieces that would deploy on the faces. At that point, all that was needed were some game mechanics to go with the physical design.

Years ago I had done some work in Napoleonic game design, mostly with variants of Frank Davis’s brilliant Wellington’s Victory game system. What Davis had done really well was capture the differences between the arms (infantry vs. cavalry vs. artillery) from which the game drew its period flavor.

I did not, however, want to rehash what Davis had done. This was partly because I had no idea how to integrate elements of his system into the physical design I was committed to, and partly because his system was fantastically complicated and I wanted a simple game.

Simplicity was a goal because I felt that if you wanted to design a complex game, a computer game was the right medium, not a board game. In a computer game, the programmer could put the complexity under the hood where the player would never have to deal with it; all of the benefits for the player and none of the costs.

What a board game could offer that a computer game could not was in part aesthetic (The Look being much more easily accomplished on 30 by 20 inch, 300 dots-per-inch paper than on a 16 by 12 inch, 90 pixels-per-inch display) and in part social: Computer games are best played alone, while board games are best played with friends.

From long experience, I knew that complexity and length were huge barriers to social gaming. I was looking for a game that would fit in with having a friend over for an evening, and nobody wants to spend the whole evening reading rules and setting up the game.

The first consequence of the quest for simplicity was that the number of pieces would have to be kept small. It is very hard to have a game can be played in a reasonable time if it has a large number of pieces, even if the mechanics are simple, so the game system was scaled to keep that number small.

A related idea was to keep all the math in the game simple – single digit numbers only and no long division. For this reason, I selected a differential combat resolution system, and the unit strengths were expressed simply – one, two or three. Another mathematical simplification was in movement – the ground scale and time scale were set so that pieces would move only one area per turn. Terrain effects on movement are expressed not by “movement points” but by the sizes of the areas – the more difficult the terrain, the smaller the areas.

Another advantage that fell out of the use of areas was that they were large enough that the effects of terrain on combat could be drawn directly onto the map, instead of having to be represented indirectly through a terrain effects table. Similarly, the differential system and simplified math made it possible to do away with combat results tables as well. Tables are an annoyance; it is often difficult to find space for them in the design of the game board without making the board bigger and players find them an annoyance when on separate sheets. Both for the physical design of the game as well as ease of play, I was quite happy to be able to do without them.

The design of the rules for bombardments and assaults were done not long after the map design was completed. They reflect two things: the ability of the three-dimensional playing pieces to easily represent limited intelligence (with two-sided pieces, having pieces “face-down” is a maddening exercise in memorization), and my desire for the strong distinctions between the arms that had characterized Wellington’s Victory. The multi-step system incorporates both, with the fortuitous effect that the inclusion of intelligence provided the uncertainty that in most wargames must be provided by dice. Thus, by happy chance (so to speak) dumb luck was almost completely designed out of the game.

Movement, on the other hand, proved a much more difficult problem. Napoleonic infantry and artillery didn’t fight on the move, and retreating infantry and artillery were extremely vulnerable to being run down by enemy cavalry. Additionally, co-ordinating a moving fight over a large area was far beyond the capabilities of the period’s courier-based command system. To portray these problems, I tried many rules variations: in some, the armies wheeled around like modern tank armies, and in others pursuit was so difficult that the French army could win simply by walking backwards slowly. The final version is built on the rules for maneuver attacks and command limits, which work to force retreating infantry and artillery to the primary roads, while leaving cavalry some ability to conduct more fluid battles of maneuver.

In looking at the design as a whole, the thing I find most interesting is how the original pursuit of The Look resulted in a game that rejected the great majority of the conventions of wargame design, without that result having ever been intended. Throughout the design, the choice of new physical and graphical components changed the matrix of what was possible and impossible, easy and difficult, resulting in a game that is certainly different from other wargames, and which I hope will be as enjoyable and interesting to play as it has been to design.