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 Strategy Assault Tactics in Bonaparte at Marengo

A Small Primer on Assault Tactics
in
Bonaparte at Marengo

by
Dick Jarvinen

Bowen Simmons’ new release Bonaparte at Marengo is a wonderful and precision-like simulation of Napoleonic linear warfare. However, most gamers will find the system so different in terms of movement and combat that they may find themselves with a surprisingly steep learning curve, despite the relatively simple mechanics.

This modest article attempts to deal with one of these mechanics, the assault, particularly as it affects the Austrian player and his use of infantry units against the French defensive line. Throughout most of the game, the burden of attack falls to the Austrian as he tries to break through the quickly formed and severely stretch French defense.

I will assume the reader is familiar with the basic principles of approaches, terrain effects, and leading units as described in the rules.

Note that unless otherwise specified, the tables and examples assume infantry units are assaulting approaches with a ‘1’ infantry point attack penalty.

The Invisible CRT

Even though there is no Combat Results Table or die to regulate combat results, there is indeed an implied Combat Results Table which must be examined in order to determine the feasibility (and results) of an assault.

This first table assumes a one-unit wide approach, with infantry units attacking an approach with a one strength infantry point penalty. Note that every approach on the map has at least a ‘1 infantry attack penalty’. The only exceptions are in the northwest woods where can be found a couple of ‘2 infantry attack point penalty’ approaches.

Also, while it is not possible to select a unit of strength ‘1’ to lead an assault, it is possible that you may end up with a unit of strength 1 due to defense artillery bombardment.

One-unit wide Approach Assaults
Attacker
Strength
Defender Strength
3 2 1
32/11/1 1/2
23/1 2/11/1
14/1 3/12/1
Results are attacker losses/defender losses
Results in red are losses for the attacker
Results in bold green are wins for the attacker

What is amazing about this table is that the attacker virtually never wins! Since all units start at ‘2’ (or more) strength, the only successful way to directly win an assault battle in the early game is to first wear the defender down, either by repeated ‘attrition’ attacks which cause losses to both sides, or by artillery bombardment.

Obviously artillery is the ‘best’ way as the attacker takes no losses in a straight bombardment. After a bombardment declaration, the defender must flee the locale or take a loss (and sometimes even then). Unfortunately, you may only bombard every other turn, and then only if you have a target.

The ‘attrition’ attack strategy almost guarantees that the attacker will take more losses than the defender, so these types of attacks must be chosen carefully lest the difference in demoralization becomes too great to overcome.

This ‘death by assault’ principle is the primary reason why maneuver attacks and flanking are so important in this game. It is far less costly to drive the enemy from a position by outflanking than by direct assault. The added bonus of flanking and maneuver attacks is that the retreating units must take a loss (unless the retreating unit is a cavalry unit). The initial advantage of six Austrian cavalry units to the French three cavalry units is a huge plus, and must be taken advantage of quickly.

The Elites

At start, the Austrians have three infantry units with a strength of ‘3’, while the French have two. As the Austrian player, do not waste these units by blindly assaulting an unreduced position. If you reduce these units to the status of a mere ‘2’ in strength, you have virtually no chance to break through any position using direct assaults. I would much rather lose one entire ‘2’ strength unit early than reduce a strength ‘3’ unit by one.

After you have softened up an approach by one or two of these preliminary attacks, you can now move in with an Elite unit, the artillery, a cavalry (if you have one to spare), and a second ‘2’ infantry (to block the approach should the unthinkable happen). The defender now has the grim choice of abandoning the area, reinforcing the area, or leaving the status quo as is, and hopefully taking his lumps.

One major consequence of using a ‘3’ strength unit to assault is that it will take at least one hit, and be reduced. The Austrian only has three Elites, and therefore only three times in the game will he realistically be able to assault a position in force. All other assaults will be reduced to a deadly crap shoot, with the downside going to the attacker.

Broad Front Attacks

Generally you will not find the French defending many broad front approaches (at least not in the games I have played), as they can be overwhelmed easier, and the resulting loss can really break down the French position quickly.

Regardless, here is the table of possibilities for a two-unit wide approach assault. Again, assume that infantry are the lead units chosen, and attacking an approach with a ‘1 infantry point attack penalty’.

Two-unit wide Approach Assaults
Attacker
Strength
Defender Strength
6 54321
62/11/11/21/31/41/5
53/12/11/11/21/31/4
44/13/12/11/11/21/3
35/14/13/12/11/11/2
26/15/14/13/12/11/1
17/16/15/14/13/12/1
Results are attacker losses/defender losses
Results in red are losses for the attacker
Results in bold green are wins for the attacker

The results of this table show some pretty brutal losses if one side or the other commits too few forces to his lead units. But until the French can be beaten down a bit, it can still involve huge risks for the Austrians. The rules clearly state that the defender chooses which attacking units take any losses; if the Austrians attack with two Elite units, and suffer two or more combat strength reductions, then the French can choose to pick losses from both of the Elites. Losing two Elites in one assault would definitely be a ‘bad’ thing.

Assaulting Strong Points

A ‘Strong Point’ for the purposes of this discussion is one of the many small towns sprinkled about the map that severely restrict combat operations against that area. A case in point is Marengo, where artillery and cavalry attacks are severely restricted or prohibited.

One might ask why you should even bother moving an artillery unit in an approach to bombard Marengo when you lose your single attack strength because of the terrain penalty. Well… the terrain penalty applies only when bombarding units in an opposite approach. So if the defender in his turn retreats to the town, you may now bombard the unit in town without having the effect of the terrain penalty.

Note also in the diagram that Marengo has a double Cavalry penalty attacking out of the town along the northwest approach (one for the town, and one for the river), and cavalry are absolutely prevented from assaulting into the town from any approach.

Marengo.jpg

Clearly the only way to assault such a position (assuming the defenders have occupied the approaches) is with infantry. But rather than bash headlong against such defense, it is far better to first ‘pin’ a unit in the approach (maneuver attack into Marengo, forcing the defender to either retreat or occupy the approach), and then flank Marengo on either side.

This will force the French to either abandon Marengo, or waste badly needed units along all three approaches. If the French do decide to hold such a strongpoint, the risk is then great for him that he will lose all three units with small loss to the Austrian.

It is not necessary, and indeed, in most cases foolish, to assault all three fronts at once (the exception being when you absolutely need to demoralize the French as quickly as possible because you are running out of time, and your losses are not significant).

Instead, pick one of the approaches and reduce it. If you can afford the excess losses, then attack it with a strength ‘2’ unit instead of an elite strength ‘3. Regardless of whether you use a ‘2’ or ‘3’, you will still ‘lose’ the battle in this turn, and the French will lose only one strength point in either case. You really want to preserve your Elites for later opportunities, particularly if you suspect a line that is defended with a ‘1’ strength point unit.

In your next turn, attack again in the same approach (assuming the approach hasn’t been reinforced). In this turn, it may be correct to use a strength ‘3’ unit as you will then win the entire area instantly, forcing all retreating units to take a one point loss.

Even if you use a strength ‘2’ unit, you will still eliminate the French defender, and he will be forced to abandon the area, or face a devastating maneuver attack on the subsequent turn.

Two other towns are of interest because of their structure: Castelceriolo, and Bettale. Castelceriolo is of far more importance because of it’s adjacency to the primary road in the North, and absolute control of the primary road cutting through the center of the map.

Note that ‘greater Castelceriolo’ consists of four approaches but because it is really two areas, it can be collapsed into a three-approach region should one of the flanks break down.

The following diagrams illustrates the four-approaches to three-approaches collapse:

Catelceriolo1.jpg Catelceriolo2.jpg Catelceriolo3.jpg

I’m not suggesting that you establish Castelceriolo as an absolute strongpoint to be held, but because of lack of command points, you may find units straggling. Far better to hole them up in a fortified position than let them be maneuvered to death by rampaging cavalry.

Bettale (on the south side of them map) does not have near the significance of Castelceriolo but can still provide a haven for units left behind when retreating. The problem is deciding whether to leave one or two units in Bettale. One unit provides little effective resistance if the French line is far to the east, but two units can make the Austrians waste some value time and command points, as well as perhaps dinging a few of his good units. Small fortifications like this are also a good place to ‘hide’ those damaged ‘1’ strength point units.

The other strong points have slightly different configurations and merit a little study as to how they can be defended, collapsed, and contribute to hindrance (if any) of the local road net.

Summary

A direct frontal assault against unreduced positions is not the way to win the game for the Austrians. However, in combination with flanking maneuvers, just the threat of a frontal assault may be enough to drive the French from a critical approach.

Artillery is a huge asset that should be used when making frontal assaults, and can easily tip the difference, converting a losing assault to a winning battle.

In order to insure a ‘win’ against a position, you generally must have +2 strength advantage as the terrain will always reduce your infantry attacks by at least one; however, as the Austrian player, you may willing to settle for +1 (reduced to 0) in order to reduce the French units down in order to force a breakthrough on a subsequent assault.

Assaults are basically a war of attrition, with a big edge going to the defense. This game is about flanking and maneuver, not assaults. However, basic tactical assault knowledge is essential for those times when there aren’t any maneuvers left. But choose wisely; a badly executed assault can turn quickly against the attacker, and you find that a mediocre position has turned into a lost one.

About the Author

Dick Jarvinen is a long-time gamer, former contributing editor to The General, S&T, Fire & Movement (and some others). He is the author of the now somewhat infamous "Viipuri Defense" (for The Russian Campaign), and is currently doing software engineering in Corvallis Oregon.