Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Gaming Austerlitz 1805

Proof of purchase. My modest "Napoleon 20" Series collection, plus a couple of books. For me, reading and wargaming go hand-in-hand.

The Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 has the reputation of being Napoleon Bonaparte’s greatest victory and is renowned as one of the most famous battles in history. It was a stunning achievement and led to the collapse of the Third Coalition, leaving France enough breathing room to victoriously take on Prussia the following year.

I have recently been reading about this period and playing a wargame on the battle from Victory Point Games' "Napoleon 20" Series. I am a big fan of this series and have purchased most of Victory Point's offerings in it. These are small wargames, designed for quick-play while offering enough game design elements to get a feel for the Napoleonic Era and to offer some insights on the battle. As usual, even though the game is designed to be played on a physical map with physical playing pieces (pictured above), I prefer to play it in its digital format. This time in a popular gaming program known as Cyberboard.

Austerlitz 20 allows players to explore some of the wider possibilities of the battle by offering an “early start” scenario which represents the military situation from December 1 through December 3. Playing the game this way leads to some very interesting and plausible divergences from the historical situation. Victory for Napoleon was by no means assured. Rather, it historically occurred due to a combination of excellent strategy and tactics on the French side, as well as some blunders by the less organized and trained Coalition side. In game terms, you don’t necessarily have to blunder as the Coalition player and sometimes things don’t go according to plan for Napoleon.

This failure for events to go according to plan is simulated in the game by a small deck of “event cards” that are randomly drawn at the beginning of each player’s turn. Sometimes the event is helpful, sometimes it does not apply, and sometimes it harms your best plans. It is this degree of uncertain variability that makes wargaming in general and the Napoleonic 20 series in particular very entertaining whether playing face-to-face or solitaire.

The “historical scenario” affords Napoleon several advantages and takes place only on December 2. The Allied army is not very well positioned – they have already fallen for the bait with which Napoleon presented them by abandoning Pratzen Heights and weakening his right flank. His plan was to draw the Coalition army forward and around toward Napoleon’s right, then the bulk of the French army would strike at the center on the heights and rout it.

As usual my game play is accompanied by simultaneous reading and study of the situation. Two books I have on hand specifically for this battle are 1805: Austerlitz and The End of the Old Order. The later book summarizes Napoloen’s handling of the situation just before the battle as follows: “By abandoning the Pratzen heights to the allies and concentrating his forces at the Santon-Zuran complex, Napoleon transformed the conditions in which the battle would be fought and made such a victory possible. That left envelopment of Napoleon’s right flank as the only promising option for the allies. By abandoning the Pratzen, Napoleon forced them to choose between abandoning the highway and with it their lines of communication and withdrawal, or dividing their forces into units that had no direct contact with one another, thus offering Napoleon the opportunity to split up the enemy army and defeat it in detail.” (Kagan, page 570)

That’s pretty much what happened historically and it is fun to play this situation out in the game. Whereas most wargames take several hours (or even days or weeks) to play, this historical scenario is fun and can be completed in less than an hour. Given the variability of the game mechanics, a French victory is likely but not guaranteed. It wouldn’t be much of a game if the outcome were certain.

Due to its quick play time, over the last couple of evenings I have played this scenario at least a half dozen times. In all but one instance, the French have won the game. So it is possible for the Coalition to achieve victory. It is just very tough given the French advantages. What follows is an example of one such playing that yielded a roughly historical result.

The game begins with fog. That affects what players can do the first turn. Among other things, movement is severely restricted and players cannot combine attacks. Units must be attacked one-on-one, individually. This is decidedly unfortunate for the Coalition player as the game begins with a massive threat to the weakly held French position at Sokolnitz Castle, an important Coalition objective hex. The Coalition player can only attack with one of his units, not both. Meanwhile, the French player is rushing his weakened III Corps unit to the Castle in hopes of holding the position. The battle begins…

The opening situation. This is historically accurate for a game on this scale.

The major French consideration is when to play the Sun of Austerlitz event card, which they get to hand pick from the card draw pile (during the historical scenario only). They get to play it at their discretion instead of making a regular card draw. The effects of the card are profound. It can do any two of the following: 1) negate the effects of fog, 2) add one movement point to all French forces, or 3) add one strength point to every French attack.

After playing this scenario multiple times, I have decided the French have to close the distance between their main army and the Prazten Heights ASAP. So, even though they do not get the to make full use of the battle advantages of the card on the first turn due to the distance between the two armies, it is best to negate the effects of fog and get that extra movement point under their belt, especially when the Coalition forces can only make one movement point in their first turn.

But the Coalition still goes first. There are choices to be made here too. Even though they are moving at a crawl due to fog they can leave themselves open to some pretty nasty French attacks if they are not careful of unit placement. The Coalition moves forward at a snail’s pace and attacks the weakened French right near Sokolnitz Castle. The attack routs the French cadre unit which is forced to make a “hazardous retreat” across a minor river. This forces the cadre to check morale which it fails thereby breaking the unit, effectively eliminating it for the rest of this scenario.

This places the Coalition in a fine condition to attempt to overwhelm the Castle in the next turn and thereby capture an important objective hex. More importantly, this rout and break of the cadre damages French morale. If one side’s morale drops to zero its army is considered demoralized and the other side automatically wins the game. Things look tough for the French.

But then the French play the Sun of Austerlitz card. They advance rapidly toward several key Coalition objectives on Pratzen Heights. The French attack the village of Pratzen with their IV Corps and Reserve Light Cavalry. This breaks the Russian 3 Corps, raising French morale and lowering the Coalition.

Suddenly, the Coalition is in trouble. They are weak in the center and the French are driving a wedge between the Coalition left and right flanks. It is important that the Coalition protect their objective hexes from the French in their next turn. The Coalition draws a card that allows them to immediately rally any one unit. This isn’t a great deal of help but it does allow them to try to rally the Russian 3 Corps. Even if successful that Corps must be placed too far away to be of any assistance during this short historical scenario. This event is more helpful in the “early start” scenario. Still, the attempt is made and it is successful. The unit does, in fact, rally and return to the map’s edge.

The Coalition is too weak to risk an attack to the north but it throws everything it can into stopping the French IV Corps before it can advance on the objective hex of St. Anthony’s Chapel. The attack forces a French withdrawal, allowing the Russian 1 Corps to advance. The French draw a “no effect” card but a wild melee ensues.

Coalition counterattack at St. Anthony's Church. Here the game begins to stray from history a bit.

In the Napoleon 20 series a player must attack every enemy unit he is adjacent to during a given turn. Sometimes, the player will choose to make a “soak-off” attack. That is, you choose to attack with a weak unit in order to concentrate more of your strength elsewhere. That happens in the next French turn as a major bid is made for two objective hexes. If both hexes fall, Coalition morale will drop one point every turn. When it reaches zero the French will win.

So the battle is on the line. While the French advance and attempt to secure the Stare Vinobrady objective hex against the Austrian 2/4 Corps, the French surround the Russian 1 Corps as the French Light Cavalry soaks-off the Russian 2 Corps. The French Imperial Guard waits in reserve.

The superb French Grenadiers and V Corps rout the Austrians. The Light Cavalry is routed holding the attention of the Russian 2 Corps. But, the Russian 1 Corps gives as much as it gets forcing an “Exchange” result. The Russian defender is eliminated, dropping Coalition morale further, but at least an equal number of French strength must the eliminated as well. The only thing the French can do to at least equal the Russian loss is eliminate their powerful V Corps, dropping French morale. It is a very bloody situation. The surviving French Heavy Cavalry is allowed to advance into the vacated Russian hex.

This presents another dilemma for the Coalition in their next turn. First of all, they draw the “Uncertainty and Confusion Reign” card which means all their units lose one movement point. Next, the Russian 2 Corps is trapped by the entire French cavalry and must stand a counterattack by the cavalry. The French strength is doubled in this effort because it is cavalry countercharging infantry.

The French Cavalry countercharge after a bloody infantry clash.

The Russian 2 Corps is routed and fails to make its hazardous retreat across the bridge behind it. It breaks. Coalition morale takes another hit. The Austrian Advanced Guard manages to move into the objective hex prepared to defend.

The French draw an “Unexpected Help” card which means they will get an additional infantry corps on their side of the map. But, it will not affect play in this short scenario. Cards like that are more important if you are playing the longer 3-day game.

Now the French must decide whether to attack the Austrians with their cavalry or to withdraw – which cavalry are allowed to do against infantry-only opponents. They decide to attack but the die roll results in an “N” – no effect. Everyone stays in place. Unfortunately, now the Austrians are going to be forced to endure a counterattack by the French in the next turn.

The French cavalry charge the Austrians at St. Anthony's.

Also unfortunately, the Coalition player draws the “Hopeless Leaders” card. Allowing the French to arbitrarily retreat any one Coalition unit of his choice. The chosen unit cannot move that turn. The French decide to retreat and freeze the powerful Russian Guard Corps, which was just now getting to the battle. This takes a lot of the punch the Coalition has left out of the next turn, if not longer.

The French cavalry push the Austrians out of St. Anthony Chapel. Meanwhile, the Coalition manages to drive the French Grenadiers back. But, neither action costs anything in terms of morale. However, now the French have two objective hexes and that does cost the Coalition a precious morale point.

But all is not lost! The “Warriors of Russia” card is drawn which grants all Russian units (not Austrian) +1 strength point the next turn. The French consolidate their gains. Coalition morale drops dangerously low. But, the Coalition forms for one last attempt to save one of the objective hexes. Only it is now the evening turn. Fog has returned to the field. The Coalition can only move one hex again and they cannot combine attacks. Still, they will attack where they can. Nothing comes of it. A bunch of meaningless withdrawals.

The French draw the “L’Ordre Mixte” card. This gives them +1 Strength for their turn. The French III Corps, which has not yet been committed to battle, attacks the Russian 1/4 Corps for hoots and giggles, forcing it to rout. This rout, combined with the loss of another morale point due to objectives demoralizes the Coalition. They will quit the field. The French win a bloody but decisive victory.

End of battle. The Coalition is demoralized. Napoleon wins.

Of course, this was not the way Austerlitz was actually fought. I used units from both sides differently than they were used historically. The dynamics of battle were also different. Historically, the French cavalry didn’t play as big a role in the battle as they did in my game play. But, the end result was roughly the same. A decisive French victory elevating Napoleon to his rightful height in history.

Although Austerlitz has the scholarly clout of being Napoleon's greatest victory I do not personally believe it was the greatest victory of the Napoleonic Era. That distinction in my opinion should go to one of Napoleon's marshalls – Louis-Nicolas Davout. In 1806 at the Battle of Auerstadt, though outnumbered 2-1 by the Prussians and losing almost one-third of his troops in a very bloody encounter, Davout engineered an amazing, crushing defeat of the Prussian army. To me, this was the finest achievement by any military commander in a single battle during this period. Davout's mastery demonstrated the supremacy of the innovative and aggressive French tactics compared with a Prussian force that still fought battles the way Frederick the Great did some 50 years previously.

Nevertheless, Austerlitz remains a stellar historic achievement of superior political weight compared to Auerstadt. Whereas Davout’s victory merely demoralized superior Prussia forces, at Austerlitz Napoleon’s victory reaped huge political concessions from his enemies and ended the Third Coalition. It is a fascinating situation to study and to simulate in this small but not simplistic gaming format.

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