Sunday, May 11, 2014

COA Fontenoy: The Aesthetics of a War Game

My wargame table set up for the historic scenario of the Battle of Fontenoy. One of the many things I like about my table design is that the table itself can be rotated 360 degrees so you can view the situation from any perspective. This often helps spot weaknesses or strengths that would go unnoticed as you play any given game. It is always good to look at the game from the other side's point of view, especially when playing solitaire, as I generally do.
Long-time readers know that wargaming holds a special place among my many hobbies and interests. As to why this is so see my posts here, here, and here for examples.  Most of my wargaming is played out digitally, either through actual computer wargames or, more often, digital renderings of printed board wargames that I own.  Games I could set up on my wargaming table but choose to play on my PC in VASSAL or Cyberboard or ADC2.

Time was when I would purchase many wargames every year.  Probably on the order on one per month back two or three decades ago, sort of my wargame peak.  Now I purchase maybe a couple a year, going long stretches without buying anything at all.  This is because other interests take precedence these days, my spending is much more focused and disciplined and I simply do not have the leisure time to devote to war gaming as I once did.  Also, once I own a wargame that satisfactorily covers a particular topic or military era I see no need to hoard more games on that subject.  Time to move on to other things.

Occasionally, board wargames are produced that have specific visual merit and appeal.  Printing techniques over the past couple of decades have made it possible to produce games of exquisite color, quality of presentation, and polished design.  One such game is Fontenoy by Clash of Arms (COA), a 2012 release that I acquired earlier this year not because the Battle of Fontenoy is of specific importance to me.  It is not.  But this game offers state-of-the-art publishing and I added to my collection for aesthetic purposes more than anything else.

Fontenoy is the most recent release of COA's Battles of the Age of Reason (BAR) series.  (A game on the Battle of Prague is in the final stages of development.)  Leuthen is the only other game I own of this series.  I bought it back in 1997 and have tinkered with that game off and on through the years. The series itself has evolved.  Fontenoy is the first game to feature the Third Edition of the game system rules.  More on the system itself in a future post.

As far as appearance goes, COA Fontenoy is a masterpiece, a thing of published beauty.  Over the years, board wargame artwork has become more impressive in certain designs due to improvements (at lower cost) in printing and graphic capabilities.  Playing pieces (known as “counters”) can be (if the designer is competent and imaginative enough) printed with a precision and more generous use of color than they typically were in, say, the 1980's.  Maps are, for the most part, routinely works of printed art. The accompanying components of the game, various player aids, tables, charts, and rule books, really are not any better than before but there's only so much you can do with such functional things. You can make them more legible and easier to use but that’s about it.

A close-up of the Duke of Cumberland's main position before Fontenoy.  Armies of the day often wore non-standard uniforms representative of their local (rather than national) nature.  All of these counters accurately represent some the many uniforms worn by the Allied side on that day of battle.  The Duke of Cumberland is located alone (the counter represents both his aides and himself) toward the lower left of the pic.  His counter is adorned with a silver sash and a medal just to the right of his breast coat from this perspective. 
In BAR, the counters have always been rich, vivid, and exact. They were marvelous to behold in my Leuthen game.  In Fontenoy, they are simply exquisite, which is the main reason I wanted to own the game.  It is more a work of art in my mind than an actual game, even though the system is a fine tactical representation of the art of war in the 18th century. Fontenoy accurately depicts the various uniform colors of the armies as they were one the day of battle.  Though beautiful to behold, this can create potential issues for the player.  In the 18th century there was only a meager standardization of uniform colors compared with armies today.  In many cases, especially for cavalry units, battalions and squadrons wore coats, leggings, and breeches that followed some sort of local tradition dating back to the Renaissance period, many of them of impractical colors like bright green and yellow.

This meant that leaders had to pay close attention to flags of regiments marching around on the field of battle.  The uniforms themselves often looked so similar to their own troops or allies that they could accidentally attack their own side if close attention is not paid.  Likewise, for a player to look down upon my gaming table at the set up historic battlefield at Fontenoy, you will see certain units that are, in fact, adversarial with almost the exact same counter design. This makes BAR part of a small class of board wargames that does not follow the modern design of two conflicting sides represented in two contrasting colors. Sometimes uniforms, particularly of the infantry, are almost identical on both sides.

A sample of four counters as depicted in the VASSAL module for the game.  These are all accurately rendered in terms of their uniform colors, with red coats and blue breeches.  The two units on the left are from the French army.  The two on the right are from the Allied army.  Only the nationality designation located between the numbers and a slight difference in breast coat coloration is different.  The left and the right are enemies on the field at Fontenoy.
But it is all good.  What BAR manages to recreate, both aesthetically in the artwork and mechanically in the rules, the look and feel of 18th century warfare.  It is a great way for the player to become immersed in the dawn of modern warfare both in fashionable spirit and in historical simulation.  Like most of these tactical type pre-Napoleonic games the foundation is in the command system.  Leaders have specific range in hexes in order to cause specific results - march, form line, fire, assault, withdraw, regroup - the better leaders offer positive bonuses on units attempting any of the above.  In BAR, leaders have always featured on colorful counters.  So it is in COA Fontenoy.
The French have several wing commanders in and around Fontenoy concentrated against the Allied army.  Lord Biron's commander counter features a pink sash turned toward the right in this pic.  Most troops in this position are behind fortifications and backed up with plenty of artillery.
My favorite might be Lord Biron, a small wing commander on the French side, as it happens commander of the defensive works around the town of Fontenoy.  You can a see his dark blue coat, accented by white frills, black trousers, and a pink slash.  Very fashionable for the age.  All commanders on both sides are colorful.  Somewhat contrastingly, Marshal de Saxe, leader of the French army and the finest commander in terms of ratings in the game, is dressed in a red coat and breeches that closely resemble the British contingent of his enemy.  Many other leaders and units are splendidly resplendent as indicated in the photos accompanying this post. 
Marshal de Saxe (red counter in the upper right, two medals accompany his silver sash adornment) is located behind the French forces with his guard cavalry units and subordinate commanders close at hand.  The few white counters represent the "standard" French national army units.
The Duke of Cumberland, commanding the Allied army, is actually some what more understated than many of his subordinates.  Most of the leaders on the Allied side, though decorative, comparatively lack the color and pageantry of the French Army.  In the historical battle set up the Duke keeps much of his cavalry in the rear to guard against various contingencies by the French. These units feature the most interesting uniforms on the Allied side.  By the era of linear muskets, cavalry had lost much of its power compared with, say, the Middle Ages, before gunpowder.  But was still potentially a potent force in charging the line at any points of breakthrough that might be achieved by the infantry on either side.  Cavalry could still crush infantry breaking through friendly lines or it could transform enemy infantry withdraw into a headlong rout.

Now that I have the historic Battle of Fontenoy set up on my table and can admire the beauty of the units and the maps, I will devote the next several weeks to playing out the game. The historic scenario probably takes up to about 10-12 hours of actual playing time to complete.  So in theory, I could finish it in a long weekend.  But, I rarely spend more than an hour or two playing at any given time.  I am in no hurry.  To immerse myself in the pageantry and complexity of the dawn of modern warfare is what I am after here.  So there is no race on my part to finish the game.  For me the process of play is the enjoyment.

The Battle of Fontenoy was fought on May 11, 1745, exactly 269 years ago today.

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