By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
After all of the loving care we lavished on Battles of 1866: Frontier Battles, including a fair amount of Daily Content, the expansion book Blood and Iron and a starring role in a Golden Journal, we’ve never actually run one of these publisher’s preview pieces about it. It’s past time we took a look at the game.
Frontier Battles covers five of the opening battles of the 1866 Austro-Prussian War, taking place on three distinct battlefields (four if you want to nitpick; two of the battles take place on adjacent battlefields and the maps can be joined together into one map for combined scenarios). The maps depict the battlefield terrain in unevenly-shaped areas that match the contour of the ground, so it’s harder to assemble your troops in rough terrain, and you can’t always get them to face in the direction you might want because the ground doesn’t flow that way.
Troops are represented by “long” pieces (1 1/3 inches long by 2/3 inches wide) for infantry brigades, and 2/3-inch square for cavalry regiments, light infantry battalions and artillery batteries. These move through the areas on the map and have to fit inside them. That’s never a problem for the square units, but does sometimes restrict where the long units can go and the direction in which they can face.
Map art is by Guy Riessen, who’s been the artist for our Panzer Grenadier and related series for a while now. The pieces by Susan Robinson are very clean and functional, yet I still like their look very much. They’re nice and large and they do look good against the maps.
The five battles in the package pit the Prussian Army against the Austrians and, in one of the battles (Jicin), against the combined forces of Austria and Saxony. None of them, to my knowledge, have ever been portrayed in board wargame format (and it’s pretty unlikely they’ve been shown in any other game format either, for that matter). This is a unique game.
Frontier Battles came about sort of accidentally, as a part of our long-ago failed “Classic Wargames” program. The idea was to craft a large game on an unusual topic that I could complete relatively quickly (so the topic would have to concern something I already knew a lot about). Battles of 1866 was originally offered as one game with many battles inside the box, and it got the “large” and “obscure” parts down pretty well. “Quickly,” not so much.
My graduate school advisor, James V.H. Melton, once advised me that teaching about a subject in which you’re a specialist is particularly difficult, “because you’re always looking for nuance, and nuance doesn’t really tell the story.” And I think that applies to historical game design as well. I assembled a very deep research base (academic-history-deep, not wargame-design-deep) for all of the Battles of 1866 games, and that no doubt greatly hampered their completion. They’re based on archival research in Vienna’s Kriegsarchiv, plus hundreds of published primary and secondary sources. I did my dissertation on the 1866 war and had a lot of material to use. Too much, really.
I was fortunate, through no fault of my own, to have promised that the games would use a very simple engine that we’d deployed before in a couple of American Civil War titles. That kept me from layering on special rules for every strange event and special unit, and forced me to tend to the craft of game design.
Good historical game design keeps away from special rules: if the model’s a valid one, you should be able to show your special event/ability/whatever through the standard game engine. Battles of 1866 uses a fairly simple system that boils down to “roll a 6, stupid,” but it does have room for nuance in the ratings of units and leaders, the progression of strength from their weakest level (or “step”) to the strongest, and a handful of special rules. For example, the Austrians can be forced to make bloody frontal attacks whether the Austrian player wishes it or not. And just so there’s a purpose to those frontal attacks, a player can declare a “cold steel” charge that increase casualties for both sides (and is actually useful when you just have to take a position this turn, losses be damned).
The five Frontier Battles are those least-known outside specialist historians of the period, but they were not any less hotly contested. Trautenau saw the Austrian X Corps of Ludwig von Gablenz find the Prussian I Corps exiting a mountain pass into Austrian territory, and move promptly to smack them before they could fully deploy. It would be the only Austrian victory of the frontier battles. As with the other battles, all the initial placements are from the Austrian situation maps of the campaign held in the Kriegsarchiv – the game uses the same map scale and unit scale, except for those area boundaries to define game movement - and the players really do get to step into the shoes of their historical counterparts.
The Battle of Soor takes place on the same map on the next day. The Prussian I Corps has stumbled back off the north edge, but now the Prussian Guard Corps arrives on the east edge. The Trautenau/Soor map is the smallest of the three battle maps, and provides some good introductory play for the game system. I wrote a pretty extensive overview of the Trautenau/Soor scenarios, with some pompous historical commentary, that you can read right here.
Jicin just saw one battle, but it’s the largest of those in the Frontier Battles set, with four Prussian divisions launching disjointed but surprisingly successful attacks on the oversized Austrian I Corps (five brigades rather than the standard four) and the Royal Saxon Corps. As with Trautenau/Soor, there’s a lengthy overview of the scenarios you can read right here, and I also wrote a pretty detailed history of the battle you can find here (it's probably the best historical piece I've written for this site, but see Jamie Melton's "nuance" comment above).
Nachod and Skalitz are an unusual double battle, taking place on successive days on adjacent battlefields. The two battlefields each take up one 22x17inch map and fit together to make one 34x22-inch map with no overlap and very little excess space. That in itself is pretty odd. In the first battle (Nachod), Wilhelm von Ramming’s Austrian VI Corps meets the Prussian V Corps led by Karl Friedrich von Steinmetz. The Austrians are late to the party and that allows the Prussians to grab the high ground, forcing the Austrians to attack them there. Attacking is rarely good for the Austrians in this game. The second battle (Skalitz) saw Steinmetz next meet and defeat Archduke Leopold’s Austrian VIII Corps. And we also have scenarios for a combined game. Once again, there’s an extensive look at the Nachod/Skalitz scenarios here.
All told, there are 14 scenarios for the five battles in Frontier Battles, including two combined campaign scenarios. That’s a lot of play value for what is a fairly large package. As I wrote in the scenario previews, I’m very pleased with the way Frontier Battles turned out. We’ll produce at least two more Battles of 1866 games, with some changes to the game system, but they should be fun, too.
Click right here to order Battles of 1866: Frontier Battles.
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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 is not named for the archduke.