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 Strategy Cavalry in Bonaparte at Marengo

Bonaparte at Marengo

Bowen Simmons


The analysis of the proper use of cavalry in Bonaparte at Marengo begins with an examination of those rules in the game that are specific to cavalry. From this can be identified a set of limitations and (more importantly) capabilities that cavalry possesses that other types of pieces do not. These differences enable cavalry to fulfill tactical roles that other pieces either cannot perform as well, or cannot perform at all. These tactics are then considered in light of the situation (forces, terrain, and objectives) specific to the battle of Marengo as represented in the game. The analysis concludes with a consideration of how the situation might evolve over the course of a game, and how cavalry's role might evolve with it.

Special Rules for Cavalry

The rules for Bonaparte at Marengo (available for download in English, German, and French) contain a number of special rules that apply to cavalry but not to other kinds of pieces. These are summarized below:

It is worth noting that there are situations in which cavalry is neither uniquely enabled or disabled compared to other types of pieces. In those situations, cavalry can be used interchangeably with those other pieces.

General Cavalry Tactics

Although the special rules for cavalry give it both strengths and weaknesses, the weaknesses require little attention: i.e., since cavalry does very poorly in cavalry obstructed terrain, the recommendation is simply not to use it in such terrain. The focus of an analysis of cavalry should be on its strengths, because it is the strengths that determine where it is to be used, and it is where it is used that the fine points of proper usage matter. With that said, missions for which cavalry is uniquely suited are listed below:

The mission list above is a conceptual list of categories, but it should not be considered as exhaustive, nor are the categories rigid. There are times, for example, when the same cavalry unit might be considered as both screening an advance and flanking a position. When and where these types of missions may actually be used in the course of a game requires the consideration of the particular nature of the battlefield and the opposing forces contesting it.

The Situation: Terrain

An examination of the map reveals the following features that are significant for the employment of cavalry:

Dotting the entire battlefield are islands of cavalry-obstructed terrain in the form of various villages. There are no large cities to be found, nor are there any lines of adjacent villages on which a defensive line can be built. Such isolated villages can be local importance, but they do not affect the overall employment of cavalry on the battlefield.

The terrain at the western edge of the battlefield is of limited suitability for cavalry. The Fontanone stream runs north-south near that edge, and cavalry attacks across it incur a one-strength penalty, enough to doom the attack of a full-strength cavalry unit against even a weakened one-strength point defender. The terrain also includes a number of swamps, which, when they are not outright impassible, also impose a one-strength penalty on attacking cavalry. Finally, cavalry's special continuation and maneuver attack abilities along roads are of limited use on that end of the battlefield, due to the scarcity of roads.

The part of the battlefield east of the Fontanone is generally favorable for the employment of cavalry. Most approaches have no attack penalty for cavalry, and there are numerous roads along which cavalry can maneuver. There are three primary roads that are of special importance: one runs from Castelceriolo to the northeast corner of the battlefield, another runs from Castelceriolo to the center of the eastern edge of the battlefield, and the third runs from Marengo to the southeastern corner of the battlefield. These three roads have no cavalry obstructing terrain along them, and are the axes along which the Austrian army can advance with great speed if it breaks through the line of the Fontanone.

The Situation: Opposing Forces

The Austrian army has the advantage in cavalry strength, a total of six pieces vs. just four for the French, and one of the French pieces enters so late in the game as to be of limited use. This leaves the French for most of the game with just three cavalry pieces (the French player should note that if the Austrians break out of the western edge of the map, their advance can be along three primary roads, exactly the same number as French cavalry pieces available for defense).

Applied Cavalry Tactics

Having identified a set of possible cavalry tactics and the general situation in the battle, it remains to be considered how the battle may evolve over time and how cavalry can be effectively employed in the battle’s different phases. Towards this end, a broad schema of how the battle might unfold will provide a framework for such an analysis:

Phase 1: Austrian Entry. The first few rounds of the game are dominated by forced French inactivity and the Austrian effort to get forces on the map. If the Austrians are too aggressive in their initial approach, the French will have opportunites for their cavalry to conduct maneuver attacks against the flanks of the Austrian advance. If the Austrians do not make that mistake, the main French goal should be to get a cavalry piece along the road to Castelceriolo to delay any Austrian advance in that direction. The main role of Austrian cavalry in this phase is to pressure the French along the Fontanone by blocking the approaches opposite their forward pieces immediately upon the activation of those pieces, threatening an assault unless the French move forward without delay to block in turn. By bringing pressure in this way, the Austrians prevent the French from re-deploying and also prevent them from using their early moves to bring forward reinforcements.

Phase 2: The Battle for the Fontanone. Once the Austrians are on the board in significant strength, the French will tend to find themselves thrown on the defensive with no real opportunities for offensive action. The French may have to use some cavalry to hold the main position for sheer want of infantry, but the most pressing cavalry mission for the French is to try to delay any Austrian advance to the northeast towards Castelceriolo. The most important use of Austrian cavalry in this phase is the counterpart of the French, to force open that road and threaten to turn the right flank of the entire French position on the Fontanone. Although there may be some use for cavalry in the fighting along the Fontanone, infantry and (for the Austrians) artillery tends to bear the brunt of that battle, with cavalry employed in a stop-gap and supporting role.

Phase 3: The French Retreat. Although it is theoretically possible for the French to hold the line at the Fontanone for the entire game, it is difficult and dangerous for them to do so. Unless they attempt this, at some point they will have to retreat. This is for the French the most dangerous time of the game and the time of the greatest opportunity for the Austrians. For both sides, the employment of their cavalry is critical to the outcome. At the start of this phase, the French infantry will be heavily committed to blocking positions on the front lines; the infantry must be pulled back, where it will certainly be subject to maneuver attacks by the Austrians that cannot be blocked, and pulled behind the French cavalry and from there to primary roads which can carry them to the rear. During this vulnerable time, the Austrians will seek to maximize the French retreat casualties and the French will seek to minimize them. Both sides will also both be watching the French lines of retreat: if the Austrians get any cavalry behind any of the retreating French pieces, they can wreak havoc on the French. Should the French get away, they will want to use their cavalry to fall back along the three main primary roads noted earlier and the Austrians will want to use their cavalry to advance along the same roads. The French can survive sacrificing the northernmost road if necessary, but the French situation becomes extremely difficult if the Austrians can advance unimpeded along the center or southern road.

Phase 4: The Battle Renewed. If the French manage to get back from the Fontanone without demoralization, they can fall back on their reinforcements and attempt to renew the battle. How even such a fight will be depends on all that is gone before it, but the terrain will be open and more suitable for cavalry. Both sides will want to stay alert for opportunities for both cavalry assaults and flanking maneuvers. Because the location of this fight, the amount of time left, and the strengths of the opposing sides will vary greatly from game to game depending on what has gone on before, little specific advice can be offered about this phase of the battle.

In conclusion, phase 3 is the most important phase in the game insofar as the use of cavalry is concerned. Although cavalry has important roles to play in phases 1 and 2, those phases tend to be dominated by infantry, and for the Austrians, their artillery. Phase 4 is the most balanced of the phases, the one in which all arms will have some opportunity to be employed in a decisive role.

About the Author

Bowen Simmons is the designer of Bonaparte at Marengo.