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Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
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Bonaparte at Marengo is the first of a series of games that aesthetically capture the spirit of the Napoleonic Wars. Pioneered by Bowen Simmons, he chose the Battle of Marengo as his test subject. It was a battle Napoleon almost lost, but the actions of his cavalry led by Desaix, who perished, and Kellerman, won the day. More than any other battle, this struggle secured Napoleon's power within France, even if the decisive battle of 1800 was victory at Hohenlinden.

Gameplay (28 out of 28): The units and map are still unique in wargaming. The units, rather than stout blocks or cardboard chits, are instead long thin wooden blocks that create fog of war. The units represent were infantry, cavalry, and artillery.

The Units:


Close Up of the Blocks:
 


The units moved on a board divided into sections with anywhere from three to five approaches. The approaches effect the game in two ways. First they are an easy way of representing terrain modifiers. If an approach has a cavalry symbol, then horsemen are at a disadvantage attacking across it. The approaches also dictate the use of units. Up to two units can block or advance into an approach. This creates battle lines and makes commitments hard to withdraw from, particularly for the defender. This is important, as I find the attacker often has trouble winning, but by making a defender commit, the attacker can stretch the lines. In other words this game is perfect at simulating linear tactics, particularly the feign, both through fog of war and the approach rules.

Battle Lines Form:


In this superb alchemy comes the next ingredient: luckless combat. Now, ever since I played Chess I've been bias aganist luckless combat. The reasons were many. It seemed too deterministic. It seemed like a false test of skill. I know devotees of the abstract believe that since these games are supremely balanced and they are accurate at determining ability. I think that very balance and perfection makes them suspect because the world does not operate that way. Bonaparte at Marengo has luckless combat, but dispenses with the things I dislike in other games of its kind. Fog of war and terrain rules help, but most importantly even if you win, you still lose troops. That was my biggest problem with other games featuring luckless combat. There wasn't that element of risk and if you won you weren't even fazed.

Tactical (5 out of 5): The combination of linear approaches, terrain, and fog of war create a compelling reason to operate as the generals did. In addition though, movement is limited. Only so many units can be ordered a turn, which is vital to any good tactical wargame covering the era.

Accessibility (3 out of 5): Here is the game's biggest failing, although it is not entirely its fault. The rulebook can be a bit hard to digest and the explanations seemed vague to me. Wargame rulebooks for proven systems are hard enough, but I give this one some leeway in that the game was so new it was quite possibly hard for even the designer to explain it. Still, be prepared for some problems here.

Components (4 out of 5): The blocks are simple but effective and the map is pleasing and hard mounted. I think the ink used on the map is a too light, and that is my only compliant.

It Looks Damn Good:


Originality (2 out of 2): This was the first of its kind. Not since We the People has the wargaming world been hit with such and an inventive design.

Historical Quality (4 out of 5): The use of feign creates fits for the defender and this tactic must be used wisely by the attacker. This makes flanks and weak parts of the line a top priority. More importantly, with each side taking losses two facets of the linear musket combat come to the fore: a line can only take so much before breaking and attacking formations eventually exhaust themselves. Combine this with the command rules and you have a simple and very effective way of simulating combat in the era. The only thing that is missing are leaders, such as Napoleon and Desaix. Also an occasional fate die roll, to represent the strange occurrences of the battlefield, would add something, but this is all rather minor.

Overall (46 out of 50): No one doubts that We the People revolutionized the hobby through the use of cards in a strategic setting. However, look at the immediate wake. Only a few games followed We the People in the 1990s: Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, Successors (second edition), For the People, and Paths of Glory. Now they are everywhere. Simmons followed up Bonaparte at Marengo with Napoleon's Triumph. László Koller gave us the VASSAL only Civil War adaptation: Baptism at Bull Run. Simmons himself is bringing the design to the American Civil War in the anticipated The Guns of Gettysburg. Some folks have already started to adapt other maps to the system, and made unofficial games.

Antietam Adapted to the System:




I think Bonaparte at Marengo as a work of genius, and that in the coming years this system will become more accepted and more popular. It weds the best of wargaming with the best features of the abstract. So from now on, if a luckless combat system has fog of war, terrain rules, and most importantly automatic losses from combat, then it will increasingly work for both crowds. This does not mean the system will become a mainstay with non-wargamers, but rather that they will appreciate this one. More importantly, I think the future will be bright for tactical musket combat games. Think of all the battles that can be simulated with this system: Blenheim, Fontenoy, Leuthen, Brandywine, Fleurus, Salamanca, and Shiloh. That is only scratching the surface. We may not know it now, and currently the games using the system are limited in number, but Bonaparte at Marengo is among the watershed wargame designs. The future of the hobby is made brighter by this classic.
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Nicola Ciabatti
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I own it, but I've played it only once because I didn't like it. Maybe it's just because I've not been able to understand the tactical implications of the rule system, but I've never wished to play it again.
Moreover, I think counters are much more fascinating than sticks.
Bye!

Nick
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I concur entirely. It is a work of genius in my opinion and from a design perspective is exciting, innovative and enticing.

I have mentioned this in other threads, but from my limited experience with this game and Napoleon's Triumph I found the system satisfied both the "simulation" side of my brain as well as my "game" side. It is hard for me to put my finger on exactly why, but these games "feel" like Napoleonic warfare to me. I think it has to do with forcing you to measure the amount of pressure that you can apply to a location/line before delivering the coup de grace. You just do not know for sure whether you have whittled away long enough or not. This is especially true in NT where the Corps penalties for a failed attack/defense can be catastrophic.

The fact that you can do this whittling is the appeal for me also. Most wargames let you do this needless to say, but precious few allow it with such ease. You can represent this facet of warfare simply, clearly and quickly. I am an old grand tactical scale wargammer and playing Austerlitz or Marengo in 2 hours is great.

A big thumbs up for me. Can't wait for The Guns of Gettysburg...
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Good review, Sean. I would disagree with the characterization of Bowen's games as a system, however. They absolutely bear the stamp of the designer, but that isn't the same thing.

Series games typically have a base set of rules, then a custom section where unique aspects of a given battle are addressed. BaM and NT are both Napoleonic battles, and look quite similar, but learning to play them reveals that they are fundamentally different. Experience gained with one doesn't take you very far in learning the other; each must be taken on its own terms. The Guns of Gettysburg doesn't even have the map similarities that NT and BaM share; it represents an entirely new paradigm.

I absolutely agree with you that Bowen is a brilliant designer, but I doubt he will ever design a series. His absolute immersion in subject matter and attention to detail guarantees (for me) that any subject he tackles will result in a fascinating game.
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Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
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Quote:
Good review, Sean. I would disagree with the characterization of Bowen's games as a system, however. They absolutely bear the stamp of the designer, but that isn't the same thing.

Series games typically have a base set of rules, then a custom section where unique aspects of a given battle are addressed. BaM and NT, even though both are Napoleonic battles, and look quite similar, but learning to play them reveals that they are fundamentally different. Experience gained with one doesn't take you very far in learning the other; each must be taken on its own terms. The Guns of Gettysburg doesn't even have the map similarities that NT and BaM share; it represents an entirely new paradigm.


You raise a good point here. System may not be more appropriately attached to what I am describing, but what then do we call these games? We the People and Paths of Glory are very different, but PoG draws from the same well. It is a member of the family, and perhaps that is the more accurate term: family.

I must disagree that NT and BaM are fundamentally different. Fundamentally they are the same, but they play differently, sort of like the relationship between We the people and Hannibal.

Quote:
I absolutely agree with you that Bowen is a brilliant designer, but I doubt he will ever design a series. His absolute immersion in subject matter and attention to detail guarantees (for me) that any subject he tackles will result in a fascinating game.


Nor did Mark Herman design most of the CDG. My hope is that others will take up the torch of BaM.
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Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
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Fag an bealac! Riam nar druid ar sbarin lann! Cuimhnigidh ar Luimnech agus feall na Sassonach! Erin go Bragh! Remember Limerick! Remember Ireland and Fontenoy!
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Well, I'm afraid it'll have to wait. Whatever it was, I'm sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?
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Moreover, I think counters are much more fascinating than sticks.


They each do their own thing, but here counters would not work. Counters work well in Zucker's games, which i am a big fan of.
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I really wish they would reprint this game, I have emailed Simmons Games about the possibility of a reprint, but the answer I received was pretty much that it will never get reprinted.

I suppose I could try and get NT and pnp the map using the NT pieces etc, but I have never been happy with my pnp results.

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gittes wrote:
I must disagree that NT and BaM are fundamentally different. Fundamentally they are the same, but they play differently, sort of like the relationship between We the people and Hannibal.


The relationship is nuanced, so it isn't really a yes/no question. A reasonable case can be made for either answer. My litmus test is whether knowing the rules to one game helps you learn the other, and in this case I believe that it does not.

Knowing the rules to BaM is a barrier to learning NT by those (myself included) for whom unlearning old rules is more difficult than learning new ones.
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OrlokSubedei wrote:
I really wish they would reprint this game...


I think Nicola has a spare copy....
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Nicola Ciabatti
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gittes wrote:
Quote:
Moreover, I think counters are much more fascinating than sticks.

They each do their own thing, but here counters would not work. Counters work well in Zucker's games, which i am a big fan of.

Of course, I agree. I was only trying to say that counters are IMHO more 'beautiful', when you look at them, than sticks.
Moreover there's another big deal: you can't clip sticks!

Nick
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Capt_S wrote:
OrlokSubedei wrote:
I really wish they would reprint this game...

I think Nicola has a spare copy....

I'm sorry for Aaron, but I don't sell my copy!
You know, I'm a collector of Napoleonic wargames...
Bye!

Nick
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Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
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The relationship is nuanced, so it isn't really a yes/no question. A reasonable case can be made for either answer. My litmus test is whether knowing the rules to one game helps you learn the other, and in this case I believe that it does not.

Knowing the rules to BaM is a barrier to learning NT by those (myself included) for whom unlearning old rules is more difficult than learning new ones.


Where I had the opposite experience: NT was hard to grasp until I played BaM; for me it easier when one rules set builds upon another. Like you said though, it is somewhat of a yes/no question.
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Seth Owen
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Capt_S wrote:
OrlokSubedei wrote:
I really wish they would reprint this game...


I think Nicola has a spare copy....


If you own a copy of NT you also have all the blocks you need to play BaM. The BaM rules are available from the Simmons Games site, as are downloadable files so you can print the map at a print shop. This may be more economical than trying to buy a copy of BaM on eBay, where they seem to be fetching prices North of $150.
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OrlokSubedei wrote:
I suppose I could try and get NT and pnp the map using the NT pieces etc, but I have never been happy with my pnp results.


You can print the map in the files section here on a single sheet in B&W at Office Depot for $2.50 - just color in the victory locations and you're golden

http://boardgamegeek.com/filepage/15180/marengo-map-correcte...

Also, an excellent review. I hope other people do try to emulate this style of simulation
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It is indeed a groundbreaking original system.

It does have drawbacks:

1. As you mentioned, the rulebook is strangely obtuse and hard to wrap one's head around. It makes it harder to get other people interested in playing (in my experience; certainly I don't assume that's universal). But that's not inherent to the concept, I think - one could imagine a clearer rulebook describing the game, and I think you're right that it's partly because there are so many new unfamiliar ideas that there was a lack of prior art and experience describing them.

2. I find the sticks to be neat looking aesthetically, but honestly they are less practical than counters or blocks. The fact that they must face different directions for different approaches of an area means occasionally having to rotate them 180 degrees, or turn them face-down, so the opponent can't see them. It's inconvenient and awkward sometimes.

But still a cool clever game.
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Great review!
gittes wrote:
Accessibility (3 out of 5): Here is the game's biggest failing, although it is not entirely its fault. The rulebook can be a bit hard to digest and the explanations seemed vague to me. Wargame rulebooks for proven systems are hard enough, but I give this one some leeway in that the game was so new it was quite possibly hard for even the designer to explain it. Still, be prepared for some problems here.
This is my biggest caveat with the game.
1. Why doesn't the rulebook follow the sequence of play. After reading the manual, playing feels counterintuïtive, simply because you're not following the order in the rulebook.

2. Minor things like the consistent describing the effect of artillery pieces (as in: using several of them) while in fact, each player has only one. Make a sidenote ("we use plural for the sake of completeness and in regard to future games which will contain more artillery pieces") or rewrite them into singular. Now how hard is that?

Once you've fought your way through the rules, it feels like chess: now we now the rules, we can start discovering the different tactics. Which is not a one-session-learning curve.

Great game.
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Nice review. This is a good game, but unlike many others I find the map to be drab and dull. The attack penalties are sometimes hard to see and it is not always clear to me why there are certain penalties in some locals and approaches. I'd like to see the actual terrain features drawn on the map in more detail, and in darker colours so that terrain features and their inherent penalties are more obvious.
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OrlokSubedei wrote:
I really wish they would reprint this game


I do too. I guess I'll have to buy NT and build BaM as suggested.
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rooboomr wrote:
I guess I'll have to buy NT and build BaM as suggested.

Bah, I think NT is a better game anyway!

Look, I don't want to cause a panic or anything, but here's a warning for people who've been considering buying NT: I think Bowen sold his last copy of BaM the same week NT came out. And although he hasn't given a date, The Guns of Gettysburg was in "late, I hope" playtesting last month...
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_Kael_ wrote:
2. Minor things like the consistent describing the effect of artillery pieces (as in: using several of them) while in fact, each player has only one. Make a sidenote ("we use plural for the sake of completeness and in regard to future games which will contain more artillery pieces") or rewrite them into singular. Now how hard is that?


Bowen has stated elsewhere that an earlier playtest version did have more than one artillery per side, and that the plural rule references were inadvertantly left in when the extra guns were removed. There was never any intention to include rules for future games in BaM.

kuhrusty wrote:
Look, I don't want to cause a panic or anything, but here's a warning for people who've been considering buying NT: I think Bowen sold his last copy of BaM the same week NT came out. And although he hasn't given a date, The Guns of Gettysburg was in "late, I hope" playtesting last month...


Very good point, Rusty. It won't be long until people are moaning about how they should have bought NT at a reasonable price when they had a chance. And they won't be able to knock one together from GoG bits, either.
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Mark Christopher
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gittes wrote:
Quote:
The relationship is nuanced, so it isn't really a yes/no question. A reasonable case can be made for either answer. My litmus test is whether knowing the rules to one game helps you learn the other, and in this case I believe that it does not.

Knowing the rules to BaM is a barrier to learning NT by those (myself included) for whom unlearning old rules is more difficult than learning new ones.


Where I had the opposite experience: NT was hard to grasp until I played BaM; for me it easier when one rules set builds upon another. Like you said though, it is somewhat of a yes/no question.


For myself, the BaM rules made it a bit tougher learning NT, as the similarities were just enough to cause confusion. However, knowing BaM allowed me to play NT better (not necessarily well) from the start.
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By the way, Sean, this is a great review!
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Sphere wrote:
_Kael_ wrote:
2. Minor things like the consistent describing the effect of artillery pieces (as in: using several of them) while in fact, each player has only one. Make a sidenote ("we use plural for the sake of completeness and in regard to future games which will contain more artillery pieces") or rewrite them into singular. Now how hard is that?

Bowen has stated elsewhere that an earlier playtest version did have more than one artillery per side, and that the plural rule references were inadvertantly left in when the extra guns were removed. There was never any intention to include rules for future games in BaM.


I had to look that one up. The result:
Quote:
Results for inadvertantly
inadvertantly was not found in the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary
Perhaps you mean 'sloppily'?
 
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_Kael_ wrote:
I had to look that one up. The result:
Quote:
Results for inadvertantly
inadvertantly was not found in the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary
Perhaps you mean 'sloppily'?

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/inadvertently

He inadvertently misspelled "inadvertently".
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gittes wrote:

I must disagree that NT and BaM are fundamentally different. Fundamentally they are the same, but they play differently, sort of like the relationship between We the people and Hannibal.


Late to the party, but I will have to completely agree with George. They are as different as night and day. I, too, found that BaM was a hindrance in learning NT. The rules are entirely different, so you can't really call it a system. It is evolving.

And just wait until you see how different GoG is from the first two offerings! Entirely new paradigm indeed.

Great review, though! Loved the retrospect and the forward look, but I think BaM may have just been a stepping stone along the way. Unfortunate, because I am one of the few that seems to like BaM better than the evolving designs, but GoG may change all that for me.
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