The Previewing, Part III
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
When you’ve done this as long as I have, you do slowly pick up a few hints along the way, from colleagues and customers and through study of your own mistakes. One of the more valuable calculations I’ve learned came from Dr. Christopher Cummins, Ph.D., who together with his wife Callie owns Decision Games. Callie runs the day-to-day operations, but Doc handles most of the game-related decisions, and he has a very definite idea of what games should be like.
Under the Doc Thesis, there are three aspects that make a historical wargame a difficult sell: size, complexity and topic. Those can all be mitigated by other factors, like nostalgia, but those others aren’t in play for the Avalanche Press product line so I’ll stick to his three major areas. To be successful, a game should only feature one of those three. If it’s very big, it should also be very easy to play and have a recognizable topic (what Doc calls a “Big, Dumb Game”). If it’s complex, it should be small and recognizable, and if it has an obscure topic, it should be small and easy to play.
I agree wholeheartedly with Doc’s views on this; he’s a very smart man and this is probably why his company is much more successful than anyone else publishing wargames. Even so, I violated his guidelines with Battles of 1866: Frontier Battles. It’s very easy to play, so I hit one of the three. But I bonked pretty good on the size and obscurity factors.
The five battles included in Frontier Battles have not, to the best of my knowledge, ever been simulated in a board wargame. I’m sure someone’s published a miniatures scenario at some point, though I’m not aware of any. So what we have here is virgin territory for the jaded wargamer: completely new historical battles for your game table. They really happened, and you’ve never played them out before in any game system.
Frontier Battles turned out very well; I’d thought it impossible for a Holy Grail to please its creator but this game comes pretty close. There are a few annoying oversights that result from its multi-year gestation, but most of those will only be noticed by the obsessive who designed it. Well, there is the "deeply read" buffoon online proclaiming that it’s a pretty crappy simulation of the Battle of Königgrätz; I’m kind of forced to agree since it’s not based on the Battle of Königgrätz. Anyway, here’s a look at the third set of battles the game actually does include. You can read about the other two sets here and here.
Nachod: The Battle
The frontier battles from which the game takes its name consisted of the Prussians moving through the mountain passes leading from Silesia into Bohemia, and the Austrians trying to stop them as they exited. The Austrians had every opportunity to achieve decisive local superiority and crush the Prussian columns as they exited the passes. Poor staff work and indecisive leadership at the army level meant that they instead sent only matching forces and delayed their arrival long enough to let the Prussians form up for battle. They could not have done a better job of setting up “fair fights” had they had guidance from future wargame designers.
A good general, of course, loathes a fair fight. He wants to beat the hell out of his opponent with overwhelming force while suffering minimal casualties. That’s not the case at Nachod. The Prussians are entering the eastern edge of the map, and in typical Prussian fashion they’re doing so with their artillery and cavalry jammed far to the rear of the march column (so the infantry’s uniforms will not be soiled by the mountains of horseshit piled on the road). The Prussian player, therefore, can’t screen his infantry brigades with his cavalry or with artillery fire.
The Austrian player can’t take full advantage of this situation, as his corps is only just arriving on the battlefield itself. He does have a very good heavy cavalry division already in place, but it will have a hard time charging anything amid the hills and ridge lines dominating this part of the map. More useful is the cavalry’s attached artillery battery, which can fling shells at the Prussians while they can do little to stop it.
The Austrians are very well-led (corps commander Wilhelm von Ramming’s Initiative of 5 makes his troops immune to forced Cold Steel assaults), but their brigades will come onto the battlefield piecemeal. The Austrian player will have to decide whether he wants to commit them as they arrive, or pause to gather them. Yet if he pauses, the Prussians will have the chance to occupy all of the victory objectives and the good defensive terrain that protects them. The Prussian player in turn has to decide how far forward he wants to push his infantry brigades without full artillery support; his cavalry is pretty weak so they won’t matter. If he lets his horsemen wander away from the infantry they’ll end up like their historical counterparts, cut to ribbons by an Austrian kurassier brigade.
Skalitz: The Battle
Ramming’s Austrian VI Corps lost at Nachod, and retreated to the west to re-group. The Austrian VIII Corps of Archduke Leopold was tasked with covering this retreat, under strict orders to avoid a battle. Leopold allowed Ramming to believe he would obey these instructions, and once the other Austrian formation was on its way he instead turned to face Steinmetz’s Prussian V Corps.
The Prussians have suffered some damage in the previous day’s battle, but Leopold has made it a fair fight by leaving one of his four brigades just off the western edge of the map. The three Austrian brigades are clustered tightly around the town of Skalitz on very sound defensive terrain. The infantry is at full strength, and it’s backed by the excellent Austrian artillery with clear fields of fire. This battle could quickly turn into a Prussian disaster. There’s just one problem.
Leopold is a fantastically bad leader, though not quite as bad as Clam-Gallas in the Jicin scenarios. Even so, Austrian brigades have the same chance of going berserk and leaving those fine positions to attack the Prussians on their own as they do of activating under his direction. Sending Leopold away just means they can’t approach the Prussians at all. And should Leopold accompany one of his brigades on a mad charge and meet his end in a hail of bullets, as two of his brigadiers actually did that day, his replacement is no great commander himself. Josef Weber was a career staff officer, who does not appear to have held any battlefield command before receiving his appointment as Leopold’s second. His Initiative is no better than Leopold’s.
Since Leopold is also the Army Commander, I do wish I’d made it clearer in the scenario rules that he still has to roll the die to place himself in command: he can’t weasel out of the chance his brigadiers might launch cold steel assaults on their own.
Nachod: Wires of Destiny
By the time of the 1866 war, the telegraph was no great mystery. It had seen widespread use for military purposes during the American Civil War, and the Prussians built their entire war plan around the notion of keeping their armies in constant communication. On the Austrian side the Emperor bombarded North Army headquarters with a constant stream of telegrams, and army headquarters sent back regular reports on their activities.
Despite possessing telegraph connections to most corps headquarters at the start of operations, Austrian North Army chief of staff Gideon Ritter von Krismanic sent written orders by dispatch rider. This led to disaster to Jicin, and also at Nachod. Ramming’s VI Corps could have beaten Steinmetz’s Prussians to the head of the pass had they received their orders minutes after Krismanic and his boss, Ludwig von Benedek, wrote them. Or even an hour or two later. Instead a full six hours passed while the instructions came on horseback and the Prussians had time to take the key ground unopposed.
So what if the Austrians had even semi-competent staff work, and got VI Corps moving in time to await the Prussians on the high ground? That’s the premise of this scenario, and the Austrians begin either on the high ground dominating the Prussian entry areas, or able to get there relatively quickly. They can use their superior artillery to pound the Prussians mercilessly, with the Prussian guns able to do little in reply (that whole fear-of-horseshit thing again).
However, the Prussian infantry is tough, and it will have to be to advance through the storm of steel to assault the Austrian batteries. The Austrian has most of the advantages in this scenario, and therefore he also has much tougher victory conditions. Handed the chance for a signal victory, nothing less will satisfy the Kaiser in Vienna.
I liked this situation a lot: it forces action from the start, and it reverses the usual situation of the Austrians forced to make hopeless attacks.
Skalitz: Luncheon of Doom
To make sense of Austrian military affairs in the 1860’s, you need a pretty thorough grounding in military politics and gossip of the period (scanning a Wikipedia page isn't enough to make you “deeply read”). The Imperial-Royal Army was riven by factions dating back almost two decades, to when the corps and army commanders of 1866 had been field-grade officers making their names in Italy and, to a lesser extent, in Hungary.
Ludwig Ritter von Benedek, commander of the Austrian North Army, never got over his common origins. The son of a Hungarian doctor, he won his “von” on the battlefield. Even at the pinnacle of his career, standing as the Empire’s unquestioned first soldier, he groveled before his social betters. Recently a historian claimed that Archduke Albrecht “shut the door to dilettantes” in his South Army command, but this is not exactly true – Albrecht could appoint no archdukes or princelings because Benedek had already scooped them up for North Army. Albrecht was left with the scrapings of the archduke barrel (Heinrich, in disgrace for refusing to end his torrid romance with the singer Leopoldine Hofmann).
Benedek’s finest hour came during the 1859 war, when his badly outnumbered VIII Corps operating on the Austrian right flank at Solferino smashed the Piedmontese Army on its own. But he strongly believed that his victory had been negated when the army’s chief of staff – Wilhelm von Ramming – ordered VIII Corps to cover the Austrian army’s retreat. The two got on badly after the war, when Ramming spent nine months as Benedek's chief of staff. When Ramming fell under his command again in 1866, Benedek was determined to pay him out. Thus, when Ramming laid out a plan to combine his own VI Corps with Leopold’s VIII Corps to crush the badly-overextended Prussians on the day after the Battle of Nachod, Benedek gave him a cold refusal. And much like a spoiled 15-year-old girl, Benedek then pointedly invited Leopold to lunch with him but shunned Ramming.
Would Ramming’s plan have worked? This scenario lets you find out for yourself. The Austrian has numbers and has Ramming in command – he’s not quite as brave in battle as Gablenz, but his initiative is just as good. But the Austrian goals are pretty steep: he’ll have to drive the Prussian back pretty severely and inflict more casualties than he suffers, which is difficult for any attacker in this game system.
The Skalitz Campaign
It was very kind of the combatants to fight out these battles in such a geographically perfect manner. Each battle in this set (Nachod and Skalitz) occupies a 22x17-inch map at our Battles of 1866 scale. Each of the maps contains exactly the area I wished – with total freedom to choose the battlefield area, I would not want any extra space on either, nor would I trim off any of it. Well, maybe a little on the upper left (more on this later). But that’s it. The battles exactly fit the maps – and the maps fit exactly side-by-side to make a seamless 34x22-inch whole. I’ve designed a lot of wargames, probably well over a hundred when you count “development” jobs that were really ghostwriting. I’ve never run into a situation quite like this. In a pre-determined scale, the battlefield exactly matches the desired map size. This never happens. Well, sure, there are a lot of games where it seems to happen. That’s what we in the trade call “fudging.” Nachod/Skalitz is not fudged in the slightest. Kind of spooky, actually.
Much like the combined Trautenau/Soor campaign scenario, I find this situation a lot more interesting than either battle separately. The Prussians are badly outnumbered in theory, with one corps against two Austrian corps (plus a heavy cavalry division). But they get to face each Austrian corps separately.
This is the one scenario in the 14 that come in the game that gave me serious second thoughts. After a lot of pondering and a lot of play-throughs, I decided to delete the idiot rules that forced the Austrian player to withdraw VI Corps from the battlefield once it had suffered a certain level of casualties. The combined stupidity of Benedek and Leopold is, with the benefit of hindsight, hard to believe: the Austrians had 2:1 numerical superiority, and ordered half of their force to turn and march off the map.
However, the Prussians also failed to bring all their forces to bear: the Prussian Guard stood not far off the north edge of the map, blundering to victory at Soor. Karl von Steinmetz of V Corps tried desperately to bring them south to fall on Ramming’s left and rear flanks. Prince August of the Guard would take no orders from a commoner and marched stubbornly forward. Only his attached cavalry actually ventured south to join Steinmetz, his infantry showing up much too late to affect the battle.
I thought that situation, with two Prussian corps against two Austrian ones, each side bringing on half of its force as a variable reinforcement, far more interesting than constructing a rules corset to force the action along historical lines (what we call “storyboarding” in the trade). It’s a balanced fight with a frustrating twist: each side is well-led, with two of the three best leaders in the whole set in action. But these generals are junior to the commanders of the two reinforcing corps, and Prince August and Archduke Leopold stand barely above “potted plant” on the scale of competence. Are you better off failing your reinforcement die rolls, and leaving Steinmetz or Ramming in charge?
As for that map: there was one more, less-intense battle off the left edge of the map, known as Schweinschadel. I was sorely tempted to include this “Battle of the Pig’s Skull,” which consisted mostly of an exchange of artillery fire between the Prussian V Corps and Tassilio Graf Festetics’ Austrian IV Corps. Two more map panels and another half-sheet of counters was much more than I was willing to add to the package, so that one will have to wait for an expansion set (and the possibilities it opens for three Austrian corps operating against three Prussian ones). Oddly, the Schweinschadel battlefield lines up in size and orientation exactly with the others to make a 51x22-inch map.
If the Trautenau/Soor battles are harder on the Austrian player and those of Jicin harder on the Prussians, I think this set contains the most balanced and definitely the most fun. Steinmetz and Ramming each have an Initiative of 5, so both players will have the chance to move and fight most every turn. Like Jicin, Nachod/Skalitz would make a complete boxed game all by itself, with a nice mixture of scenarios, a full-sized map and pretty extensive counter mix.
And that wraps up the three-part scenario preview of Battles of 1866: Frontier Battles. The series is far from over; keep watching this site for more.
Fight out the Clash of the Teutons! Order Frontier Battles right now!
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 (not named for the archduke).