Frontier Battles:
The Previewing, Part I

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
December 2017

Once upon a time, I planned to create a gigantic box of games. It wasn’t really a giant game, but instead five of them in one box that shared a few parts between them. When we still printed our games in China that was something we could make; whether it would be a good business decision to do so is another question. Either way, once we moved our printing back to the United States the costs became prohibitive, plus it’s unlikely we could have fit all the parts physically into our warehouse. And so we split the game into three parts.

The first of these, Battles of 1866: Frontier Battles, could itself have been split into three games. Confronted by its size and price tag - it retails for $79.99 - part of me wishes we had. Another part points out that selling one game on the battles of Trautenau, Skalitz and Jicin is going to be hard enough; selling three would be impossible. And so we have three games under one cover, based on battles that took place between the Austrian and Prussian armies within a few miles and days of one another during the summer of 1866.

Like the games in the Rome at War series, there are two scenario books, one for each player. They’re pretty much mirror images of each other, one with Austrian set up information and slanting the situations from the Austrian point of view, the other doing the same for the Prussians. Until fairly late in the process I’d planned to give each player three booklets, one for each sub-game within the set (Trautenau/Soor, Nachod/Skalitz, and Jicin). That would needlessly complicate game assembly, I decided, plus I couldn’t figure out a simple way to direct players to the Trautenau: The Battle scenario as an introduction to the game system. When the scenarios are all in one book, it’s pretty easy. Put that one first: data from Panzer Grenadier Headquarters show that no matter what scenario we put first in a book, it’s the one that gets played the most.

The Trautenau map is, at 22x17 inches, the smallest of the three maps included. Two battles were fought over this small piece of ground during the campaign. There are four scenarios set on this map, and here’s a look at them.

Trautenau: The Battle
This one’s intended as the introductory scenario. The Prussian I Corps has occupied the town of Trautenau and some of the ground to its south. The Austrian X Corps sits on the heights to the south of town and is in the process of forming a gun line that can blast the Prussians preparatory to a full assault. Position favors the Austrians, but those Prussian infantry brigades are tough.

There’s not a lot of subtlety to this scenario: the Austrians are on the attack, the Prussians on the defensive, and it’s all taking place in a very narrow area around the town of Trautenau. If you’ve played the American Civil War games in this series, you’ll notice quickly that the European units can take a lot more punishment than their Union or Confederate counterparts, but Prussian infantry with its needle guns and Austrian artillery with its rifled cannon can really deal it out. On paper the Prussians have better organization, with division commanders to help handle the units, but in this close-fought battle they're not as much of a factor.

Trautenau: The Approach
I couldn’t decide when to start the Trautenau scenario – should it open when both sides agree the actual fighting began, at around 10 a.m., some somewhat earlier to allow the players to bring their own forces into line where they wish?

Starting earlier probably favors the Prussians, as they moved slowly out of Trautenau and let the Austrians have the heights south of the town without a fight. They also stood by passively while the Austrian X Corps’ artillery reserve came up and settled onto the line of hills: Austrian artillery has much greater firepower than that of the Prussians and better range, and it can concentrate more of that firepower into a smaller area. The Prussians do not want to face an Austrian gun line in these games any more than the Austrians want to charge head-on against Prussia’s superior infantry. The earlier start lets the Prussians get onto the hills if they wish and stop the Austrians from setting up a mass barrage.

A few players have been misled by a popular history that has some of the Austrian still "plodding up the road from Josefstadt" at the start of the battle. It's the "plodding" pejorative that midleads; all of the initial positions are correct per the North Army's battle reports. The road leading south on which they set up is the road from Josefstadt.

Battle of Soor
A day after the Austrians drove off the Prussian I Corps, the Prussian Guard showed up on their right flank. Soor itself is not on the map; Prussian propagandists chose the name to reflect Frederick the Great’s victory in 1745. The Austrians referred to the battle as that of Neu-Rognitz. Since most English-language literature uses the Prussian name, we were sort of stuck with it.

Soor also opens up one of the more difficult design decisions in a lot of so-called “simulation” games – uneven intelligence. The Austrians knew where the Guard was and had a pretty good idea when it would arrive. The Prussians had a much less concrete idea of what to expect when they plunged out of the Eipel Pass into Bohemia just as the Battle of Trautenau was concluding and basically blundered their way to victory.

Gablenz pushed an aggressive response on his reluctant staff: one of his four brigades would turn about and march directly south to strike the Guard on its open right flank, while the other three hurried southwest along the road to Josefstadt to pin the Prussians from their front. In the actual battle that didn’t work as planned: the Prussian Guard advanced faster than anticipated, so a large gap opened between the flanking Austrian brigade and its three sister units. The Prussians fell on the lone brigade, already damaged in the previous day’s fighting, and routed it.

The players inherit both Gablenz’s possibly over-aggressive stance and Prince August’s strung-out march order. I thought about including a scenario similar in concept to Trautenau: The Approach, but Gablenz turned his flanking brigade (Grivicic’s) around to meet the Guard while other troops were still in contact with the Prussian I Corps. That would make for a messy scenario, with the two battles overlapping. Players can make their own mess, though, in the campaign scenario.

The Trautenau Campaign
The two battles took place on back-to-back days, with a lot of uncertainty on both sides over how the second day would take place, so a combined scenario seemed pretty obvious to include. Even at two days’ worth of game time it’s not an overly long scenario to play thanks to the small map area, and it’s the most fun of these four and easily the most interesting from a historian’s viewpoint.

Austrian leadership in the campaign, as in the previous three scenarios, is significantly better in quality than that of the Prussians: Ludwig von Gablenz, Austria’s best general during this period, faces two of Prussia’s weakest commanders in Albert von Bonin and Prince August. Even worse for the Prussian cause, while Bonin is merely mediocre, August is outright terrible – and he’s senior to Bonin. When he finally straggles onto the field (the prince was not one to lead from the front) he must assume overall command of the Prussian forces.

Much like the situation in the American Civil War, most of the senior officers involved in this campaign knew one another, at least by reputation. Gablenz had commanded the Austrian Expeditionary Corps in the joint Austro-Prussian war with Denmark in 1864, had conducted many staff talks with the Prussians before that conflict, and was personally acquainted with most senior Prussians. So he knew that August was a slug who would not press the Guard to march quickly and made his plans accordingly, while Bonin seems to have been a little intimidated by Gablenz’s reputation.

Designing wargames is not usually an exercise in historical scholarship. Every now and then you do pick up a little insight, and in reading the original records, official history and later secondary works a pattern became clear. Several later authors criticize the Austrians for deploying only one corps on the battlefield, when other troops weren’t that far off and could have made a significant difference. The Austrian North Army’s commander, Ludwig von Benedek, his chief of staff Gideon Ritter von Krismanic, and X Corps’ staff all seem to have been highly reluctant to see all of VIII Corps arrive on the scene. Krismanic toyed with sending two brigades, but ultimately dispatched but two battalions – not enough to even rate a counter in game terms.

So why not send the extra troops? Because the VIII Corps commander, Archduke Leopold, was stunningly incompetent even for a Habsburg princeling, and all of these officers knew it. If he arrived on the scene, he would immediately assume command since, as an archduke, he ranked above everyone else in the same grade on the army’s sacred Rangliste. There’s no written record of any discussions and the issue was probably too obvious to require any: everyone believed the Austrian cause would be better served by 25,000 men led by Gablenz than by 50,000 with Leopold in charge. A day later, the Austrian command showed a very similar reluctance to send Leopold to reinforce Wilhelm von Ramming’s VI Corps at Nachod.

In the scenario, the Austrian player has a chance to receive two VIII Corps brigades led by that formation’s ad latus leader, Josef Weber. No additional corps artillery or other assets come with them; these weren’t discussed at headquarters and Gablenz didn’t ask for them. The Austrians have a lesser chance to receive the 1st Reserve Cavalry Division, a formation of heavy cavalry that’s not going to be all that useful in the woods and hills of the Trautenau area. That’s probably why it was not actually sent to Gablenz, even though it was bivouacked just off the south edge of the map during the first battle (it set off to join Ramming later). Should the Austrian manage to use it as intended – a mass charge against a Prussian flank – it can be a devastating weapon.

Trautenau/Soor: The Summarizing
In each of the four scenarios, I went with very simple victory conditions: holding towns and crossroads and inflicting casualties, all based on the actual mission orders given to the commanders. They are achievable, but in three of the four they’re pretty tough on the outnumbered Austrians.

I’m pretty pleased with this game, and I didn’t think I ever would be. It long ago passed from a joy to create to a cardboard albatross slung around my neck, and I was deeply concerned that the final product would reflect that attitude. Instead it’s a fine package, with good game play and great artwork. If you’re excited by the period, and would like to see some battles that haven’t been endlessly re-hashed in wargame form, I think you’ll like it.

You can order this great - yes, great - game here!

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold knows how to shake hands and roll over, and is smarter than an archduke.