Bonaparte at Marengo by Bowen Simmons is a challenging new game that does not forgive mistakes lightly, and no part of the game is more crucial in this regard than the opening moves. At the start of the game the French player is faced with a flood of Austrian pieces pouring across the two bridges spanning the Bormida, with his own pieces still encamped and unable to react. How on earth is the French player to hold back this tide?
This article is aimed at new players to the game from the point of view of the French during this critical phase, and attempts to answer this vital question. As will soon be made clear, the key to the problem is a seemingly innocuous band of blue across the map - the Fontanone.
Bonaparte was said to be a great map reader, and to win this game, the player too must develop this skill. So, here’s a quick primer.
Every locale on the map is covered by approaches through which the enemy must assault to take the locale. Every approach has printed on it attack penalties, which vary depending on what type of piece is leading the assault. In difficult terrain, infantry and cavalry both suffer from attack penalties. Artillery pieces, though they cannot conduct assaults like infantry and cavalry, are rendered ineffective against defenders in some locales (the approaches to Marengo town being a good example). At first glance then, it would appear that the terrain of the map always favors the defender.
Wrong! There is one very important exception: cavalry in open terrain. If two adjacent locales are connected by open terrain, their respective approaches have only one attack penalty printed on them, an infantry attack penalty. What this means is that a cavalry piece assaulting across such an approach does so at its optimum strength. As far as assaults are concerned, things don’t get any better than this! Clearly then, the last place the French player wants to make a stand is in open country.
However, the Austrian player still has a problem. He could smash through the French lines with his cavalry, but to do so would cost him dearly in blood and treasure, as much in fact as it would cost the French. If his army became demoralized before the French, he would lose the battle. Ideally, the Austrian player would like to outflank the French and generate unblockable maneuver-attacks against French held locales, so as to inflict casualties on the French at no cost to himself.
Confronted by these dual threats, the French player is faced with a dilemma. How can he minimize the assault capabilities of the Austrian cavalry in open terrain, and at the same time avoid being outflanked?
Don’t worry, a solution is at hand!
Snaking across the map, running roughly north-south and almost parallel with the Bormida, is a narrow band of blue – the Fontanone Stream. All the approaches covered by this stream have both an infantry attack penalty and, crucially, a cavalry attack penalty. Defending pieces in approaches sheltered behind this stream are thus immune to the shock effect enemy cavalry normally have when assaulting in open terrain.
In addition, the Fontanone spans the entire width of that side of the map and encompasses two impassable marshland areas, a large one north of Marengo, plus a smaller one to the south. For as long as the French player can hold all the approaches covered by this stream, only seven in total, the Austrian player will be unable to outflank him and will instead be forced to conduct disproportionately costly assaults to break through this wall of French pieces.
Having chosen where to make his stand, how is the French player to get his pieces into position?
As luck would have it, a lot of the work is already done for him. The French player starts with five pieces already immediately behind the stream and ready to move into position; one in Marengo itself (locale 8) and four more in locales immediately north and south of Marengo (locales 7 and 9). These pieces need only to move up to the approaches covered by the stream within their own starting locales to form five sevenths of the defensive line required. Not a bad start!
The two French pieces west of the Fontanone are more problematic. The most northerly one (locale 3) should, at the first opportunity, move up the primary road running through its locale and take up position behind the stream north of the large marsh (locale 11). The piece south of it (locale 4) should ideally follow it north, but may not get the chance if the Austrians manage to cut off the road whilst chasing its neighbor. If this happens, it will have to fall back over the Fontanone and follow the road network north on that bank of the stream. Whatever happens, the intention is to get these two pieces as quickly as possible into position behind the stream north of the large marsh (locales 10 and 11). This completes the defensive line.
Note that in all of this, I make no distinction between types of French piece. As the French player’s starting pieces are randomly distributed amongst his set-up locales, he has little choice over which piece ends up where in his defensive line. His overriding concern should instead be to form the line as quickly as possible.
Astute players will have noticed that there is a slight flaw in this plan. The primary road going north-east towards locales 10 and 11 is a fantastic route for the Austrian cavalry to take, as they can use road movement, maneuver-attacks and continuation to cross the Fontanone at this point before it can be adequately defended. The most likely crossing point is locale 6 to locale 10, because the French player can easily move a piece up the road to defend locale 11 on his first turn (see above).
If the Austrian player decides to use this strategy however, some of his pieces must pass through the French set-up locale straddling the road at locale 3, and in so doing will trigger the French “two piece per turn” activation rule. With freshly activated pieces from the rear, the French player should be able to plug this gap before the Austrian player can capitalize on it. Another point to consider is that such a bold move by the Austrians would invite a French flanking move from locale 7, trapping the Austrian cavalry in locale 6. The mere threat of such a move will in all probability discourage the Austrian player from venturing into locale 6 too early.
Another problem for the French player is the Austrian artillery piece. In most games it will be one of the first pieces the Austrian player deploys across the Bormida, and will rapidly be brought to bear on the French lines behind the Fontanone. In a typical breakthrough attempt the Austrian player will bombard a French two step blocking piece in the artillery bombardment phase, and in the following assault phase use a three step elite infantry piece to force a crossing.
There is no easy solution to this problem, but the French player should not panic unnecessarily and immediately abandon his defensive line. If a breakthrough attempt is suspected, a simple and effective tactic is for the French player to form a second defensive line to the rear of his main line. If the Austrians are successful in getting across the stream, these pieces will be well placed to plug the gap. In subsequent turns, the French player may even be able to use assaults or maneuver-attacks of his own to throw the Austrians back over the stream. One final point to be made is that the Austrian player has a limited number of elite infantry pieces to use in such assaults, and may be loathe to squander them so early in the game.
When considering these problems, it is important to understand that the line of the Fontanone does not have to hold forever. If the French player can hold the line long enough to avoid being outflanked, and to allow his reinforcements to join the battle, then it will have done its job.
Jonathan Arkley has been involved in gaming for over 25 years. He lives with his wife, Gillian, and two children, Stephen and Sarah, in the suburbs of Liverpool, England. This is his first published article.